Pretzels and Leadership


I smell pretzels. I’m outside the College Avenue Public Library. Across from me is 670 East 42nd Street where “A Taste of Philly” bakes its pretzels. The Edward Hopper-like view from where I stand puts this little scene into any town at any time. Inside there is a cooler full of drinks and a window counter where a writer is going at it, in longhand, on her notebook. On the wall is a framed 1976 movie poster for Rocky.

But outside it is May and it is jacket weather. The breeze brings the smell of pretzels baking into every corner of my consciousness. I close my eyes and in a movie-type flashback I’m climbing the marble steps out of New York City’s underground Penn Station some twenty years ago. It’s very early in the morning. I’m about to step out into NYC for the first time in my life and I’m thinking about Lisa.

She and I hadn’t seen each other since the first time we met in a Silicon Valley convent a few years before this. We were at the convent for a week long training of YMCA professionals. Y trainings almost always took place in sublime locations: Yosemite National Park, the California Redwoods, a camp sharing the landscape with a Nike missile base (I got the tour). Somehow the convent down the peninsula fit right in.

At that time Lisa was working out of Seattle and I was working out of San Francisco. We ended up sitting next to each other, near the back of the room, where 150 young directors from around the United States gathered for the Sunday night opening remarks. Finding one’s professional kindred spirit is often a case of dumb luck. Keeping that spirit kindred is a case of commitment and communication.

The rallying cry of Y development back then was “The Process is the Product”. I put in serious labor testing and retesting this idea as a core leadership practice. In many urban YMCAs this evolved with an aura of something akin to “what is the sound of one hand clapping”. Eventually it was absorbed and moved into the background of various and succeeding management models. “The Process” was left to be observed and adhered to by a scattered and disappearing band of leaders. It became a little like “The Force” inside a Jedi Knight – something that was difficult to believe in let alone put into meaningful action.

But allow me to foreground the process for you. Next time you get together with one of your colleagues just try listening, really listening, to him. Listening is the pivot point of “The Process”. Truly listening is a game changer. When you truly listen to someone he learns to listen to himself. He gets to know himself a little bit better, gets to know you a little bit better. You get to know yourself a little more. Ask questions that help expand the ideas being discussed. Consider it a little exercise in peeling back the layers of shared thoughts. And, that’s where you want your team, right? You want them listening carefully to one another’s difficulties, ideas, and solutions. Out of this collaborative process rises the breakthroughs we’re all looking for.

Lisa and I had agreed to meet in New York to ride the subway, sit on the benches, go to the museums, and discuss our profession. I don’t believe we ever used the word “retreat” when we were making our plans. But now it is easy to recognize the passionate desire in both of us to move our communities forward through engaged processes. We chose New York as the context for our conversation. Over the years we’ve chosen other cities and other places to inform the dialogue of our practice.

But my first experience of The Big Apple was the pretzel vendor, at two a.m., with his cart at the top of the Penn Station steps. There he was, sweat on his brow, working feverishly to deliver steaming pretzels to a line of customers folded around the corner. I suddenly realized that I had no sense of direction and I had no idea of how I was going to find Lisa in eight and a half million people. It was the smell of hot pretzels that cleared my mind and led me to the relevant idea of asking for directions.

And, it is the smell of pretzels today that brings me that same calm sense of place and insight into leadership. I open my eyes and “A Taste of Philly” is still there. The writer is gone from the counter. And the process of this place, this neighborhood, is whispering to me. I zip up my jacket and head back to work.