A few years ago, I was beginning to learn the profound effects of “quiet leadership” while living in Washington D.C.

But you might not suspect that one of the most influential lessons I took away from living and working in the leadership capital of the world actually came from… my neighborhood supermarket.

At the time, I was coming off of an internship at the White House. That summer had consisted of things like:

  • interviewing for a job in the West Wing
  • helping host international diplomats in the Eisenhower Building
  • welcoming environmental representatives of foreign nations like China and Australia
  • briefing Presidential Appointees on different federal environmental issues

In other words, I had never been closer to some of the most important, powerful and influential leaders in our world. And I had never witnessed more, or felt more a part of “the modern leadership world,” either.

And yet, there was this one single moment — a fleeting, typically unmemorable exchange — in aisle 5 of my local supermarket that still, even today, continues to teach me about what it really means to be a leader in this life.

Leading from the Supermarket Aisle

That one afternoon, I was pacing up and down the aisles of my local supermarket with a fevered pace.

Like any other 22-year-old guy, I suppose, food shopping assumes a strict, “I’m only here for business” sort of task. It’s what my mother (Hi mom!!!) is so impressed by even today, when any trip to the grocery store takes me about 7 minutes flat. Straight in, straight out. Boom, done.

But what’s unfortunate about such an attitude is how quickly we forget about living presently.

Forgetting that the journey is the reward, our minds are wandering off into la-la land — we slip into a blindness of the people around us, of the rewarding nature of true presence, and of the simple gratitude of that moment. That experience. That multitude of sights, sounds, gifts and chances around us.

Do you do that too?

So, here I was, buzzing through the aisles with a stern frown across my brow. Not paying attention to anyone around me. Not soaking in the gift of the day. Business. Seriousness. Blind to life.

I stopped for a moment to once-over some section of the aisle — nearly dumbfounded by the sheer number of product choices before me. Scanning the multitude of options, my brow hardened further.

But then something changed.

A middle-aged woman, one of the (many) friendly employees of the store, passed me by. Looking at me, she jested, “Frowning at that food ain’t gonna scare it!” Out of slight embarrassment, I tried to piece together some joking and witty defense. It probably sounded something like,

“Oh, this is just how I look when I’m trying to let everyone around me know that I’m in the midst of making an absolutely vital life-decision about crushed tomatoes…”

Without missing a beat, she implored, “Smile, baby!” and just kept walking on her way.

Now, I wouldn’t ever call myself “a follower” of that woman. I’m sure she wouldn’t consider me to be a “follower” of hers, either. She might not think of herself as a “leader” at all.

But you know what?

Every time I ever catch myself frowning — whether in the supermarket, a conference, staring at my computer screen or perusing menu options at a local coffee shop — I think of her.

I remember what she said.

Then, I release that unnecessary tension in my forehead. I unfurrow my brow.

I remember to smile.

Three and a half years later.

That’s the curious thing about leadership. At its most reduced definition, leadership boils down to taking care of people. Helping. Supporting. Giving. Simple.

And as people are literally everywhere, opportunity is so too everywhere for you to exhibit, embody and exemplify these simple human traits — with, or without followers.

You can learn leadership anywhere. Embody it in a million ways. You can live it, be it, breathe it, and exercise it any day, anywhere, any time — simply by choosing it. Even in the supermarket aisle.


(And here’s just one reason why you might do such a thing…)

Today, leadership has become a dirty word. It conjures up images in our heads of crooked politicians, big money corporations and predatory big banks. We think of divisiveness and division, angry debates, disgusting egos, pickets and protests.

But what I began to discover in the supermarket aisle back in Washington D.C. is that leadership — even leading quietly in your everyday life, through simple, subtle, even subconscious acts and deeds — is wildly empowering.

Even just thinking of yourself as a leader in your everyday life — with or without any followers — begins to intentionally reframe all of your actions, words, work and duties in your life through the positive lens of bettering yourself and bettering others around you.

The effects of this simple outlook are profound.

When you think of yourself as a leader, you’re training your mind:

  • Conditioning your inner thinker
  • Automating goodness on an internal level
  • Simplifying the thinking mechanisms that output good, positive things
  • Paving a mental-emotional highway that expedites the speed at which your love may travel, being made real amongst others around you

A leader thinks with balance and synergy. An element of indiscriminate understanding and total inclusiveness. Endless determination, loving patience.

As a leader without followers, you’re living, breathing and acting from a place that is totally true to your values, your sense of self, and your fundamental beliefs — what can be reaped by the countless others with whom you interact, every day.

Taking charge of your life, and helping people along the way?

That, to me, screams leadership. Leading by example, leading by practicing what you preach, leading because “what you do when no one’s looking is what defines you,” leading by becoming the change you wish to see in the world.

Tell me, unleaders: what does it scream to you?

Where do you experience (or exert) quiet leadership on any given day? Leave a note in the comments. Share a thought with us.

Flickr Photo by Patrick Lentz

P.S. — I have since learned, with great thanks to a wonderful book called The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World (afil) that even just holding your facial muscles in a frowning expression can induce anger, frustration, and narrowed thinking. Yes, facial expressions are shown to actually preempt the feeling of an emotion! Crazy, but today it’s a scientific fact.

So frowning at crushed tomatoes in the supermarket on a Tuesday afternoon actually has a physically detrimental effect upon you. That supermarket employee, that quiet leader, that leader without followers… she actually taught me how to improve my own health and happiness — without my even knowing it.