Leadership: Gettin’ Stuff Done Without Using Your Hands

McDonald's Fries

“Leadership is getting stuff done without using your hands.”

A quote similar to this was told to me when I was in training to be a manager as a young man. It helped me immeasurably to focus on getting results through the efforts and organization of others in a hectic environment that required a fine-tuned operational symphony.

I received this quotation as a bit of casual wisdom along with much formal training to help me be a success.

Hamburger College

When I was a manager trainee at an ultra-busy McDonald’s restaurant in Gaithersburg, Maryland near Washington D.C. in 1986, I received the highest award at Hamburger College in the Basic Operations Class (BOC) called the Top Performer award. It’s an intense five-day class covering communications, training, food safetyproduct quality, customer satisfaction and other areas of restaurant operations.

The award I received was an award given to just one of the thirty in the class for having the highest scores in a combination of written testing (objective scoring) and class interaction/contribution (subjective scoring).

Filet-o-fishI learned a lot there in the training. We were tested on how to properly store, cook, test, and serve the best french fries in the world.

We had to learn to disassemble and rebuild the cleanable components of the shake machine; timed and blindfolded.

We were also tested on the physical dimensions of a Filet-o-fish patty.

At that time (and it still may be), the McDonald’s management training was considered some of the best in the world. But what I learned most was not in the classroom training. It was not in the exams. It was not in the discussions. It was on the floor in the work environment when the kitchen was hot and the food was late and the hungry customers were angry.

“…and I learned even more when two employees didn’t show for their shift and two others walked out during crunch time…”

Other People’s Efforts

Before I left the familiarity of my hometown and moved to Maryland to take the job at McDonald’s, I told my then employer that I would be leaving his company to take a management position at another company. He looked at me and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, in a fatherly way, that of all the troubles and concerns I have before me in a management position, none will compare to the headaches and heartaches that come with dealing with people.

He said that if I wanted to be successful, that I needed to get the “day job stuff” (operational management) under control really quickly, then put my focus on tackling the upcoming emotional tsunami that is in dealing with people (leadership).

So when I heard that “leadership is gettin’ things done without using your hands,” I had the “dealing with people” thing well established in my young, eager mind. I set forth knowing that the day-to-day operational stuff was going to be difficult, but that handling the human variable was going to be where I was truly tested and graded.


The day I started at McDonald’s, this restaurant was having a buy-one-get-one-free sale on their new McD.L.T. sandwich (McDonald’s Lettuce & Tomato). This popular specialty sandwich was packaged with the cooked hot meat on a bun on one side of a two-sided divided Styrofoam tray with the cold lettuce and tomato on a bun on the other side of the container.

These sandwiches were difficult to assemble and package and I made them at a frantic pace non-stop for nine hours my first day of work. And did the same for 10-hours on my second day. And another 10-hours my third day. And of course, each night after making these in real life, I dreamed of making them for 8-hours each night after. This experience was a nightmare.

My “day-job” operational training came quickly. The harder part was around the corner…

The People Part

But making sandwiches work out was easy compared to making people work out.

For instance, when it came to labor costs, I had to run a reports every hour to make sure that my labor costs where a certain percentage of sales (or lower). So I had to cut “extra” staff or put them on a surprise break to get them off my “clock.” I also had to balance personalities and drama and personal issues.

We had simple problems like “body odor” issues and more alarming issues like a clandestine foreign drug ring operating within the management and employees ranks there (that the local SWAT Team had to break up one night…)

This was a special time for me to learn about managing things and leading people!

I learned at this point in my young career that people are a variable in business and life and are never really a constant. The ones who are constants are just true blessings to behold. I learned that money can buy new and better equipment that lasts longer, but it couldn’t necessarily buy better people that stick with you for longer periods of time.

But what I really learned was that running a place while imagining my hands were tied was the best mental images I could have when it comes to leadership. I would walk around with my hand figuratively tied behind my back knowing that my mouth was the only tool I could use to:

  • Get people motivated to do their jobs
  • Show crew members their next steps
  • Calm an angry customer
  • Get a floor swept and mopped

I learned that my greatest tool was my ability to be highly skilled with EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION.

With effective communication,I could get people properly placed, get them organized and inspired, and get much more out of them when it mattered. When I wasn’t good, or just lazy, with my communication practices, everyone suffered.

So what have you learned about gettin’ things done with out using your hands? What stands out in your mind as the most effective thing that has worked for you to get more from your teams? How have you inspired others with just your words and indirect actions? I would love to hear your stories!

Bookmark Leadership: Gettin’ Stuff Done Without Using Your Hands

Tom Schulte is Executive Director of Linked 2 Leadership
He provides leadership training fit for the Blackberry-Attention-Span

Image Sources: printablemcdonaldscoupons.com, farm3.static.flickr.com

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