Leadership in the Era of Distraction

Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in 1851. It's a story about the whaling industry in the 19th century, capturing the intricacies of a life at sea. In one part of the book, Melville describes a lantern that hangs from the ceiling in the Captain's quarter. No matter how rough the seas are, that lantern stays perpendicular to the center of the earth. The lantern and it's inherent stability, reveals the faults of everything around it. It is the lone symbol of stability, always perpendicular to the earth. Leadership has to provide stability, in the current era of distraction.


Danny Meyer, the increasingly well known restaurateur (Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, and others), addresses the challenge with communicating consistent messages to his staff members, about his expectations for standards of excellence. He mentions that many of the waiters and managers in his restaurants are constantly testing him, as they push the limits of the standards he believes in. An excerpt from Meyer's book, 'Setting the Table':

"If you choose to get upset about this, you are missing the boat", Pat Cetta (Meyer's friend) noted. Pat pointed to the set table next to us. "First," he said, "I want you to take everything off that table except for the saltshaker. Go ahead! Get rid of the plates, the silverware, the napkins, even the pepper mill. I just want you to leave the saltshaker by itself in the middle." I did as he said, and he asked, "Where is the saltshaker now?"

"Right where you told me, in the center of the table."

"Are you sure that's where you want it?" I looked closely. The shaker was actually about a quarter inch off of center. "Go ahead. Put it where you really want it," he said. I moved it very slightly to what looked to be smack-dab in the center. As soon as I removed my hand, Pat pushed the saltshaker three inches off center.

"Now put it back where you want it," he said. I returned it to dead center. This time he moved the shaker another six inches off center, asking again, "Now where do you want it?"

I slid it back. Then he explained his point. 'Listen. Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That's their job. It is the job of life. It's the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you're going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: that's what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like to you.

Cetta is encouraging Meyer to provide the constant stability of the lantern on Melville's ship. And, he is suggesting that he accept the fact that there will always be instability around his attempts to do so.


A leader has to know where their center lies. They have to know it, talk about it, and never lose sight of it.

In our current era of distraction, where everyone is moving the saltshaker or being coaxed to do so, the only constant is the leader and their knowledge of what is important. The great leaders in this era, like the lantern in Melville's book, are stubbornly consistent, adhering to their center, despite the storms around them.


  1. This resonates in an era of too much information, too little time and the business transformations. Out here in Europe our attention has been stretched as our people get to grips with integrated European practice and the messages around CAMS. A two year journey that's beginning to settle down as people digest what it means for their industries.

  2. The bigger challenge I think is to understand what exactly is THE important thing, in this era of distraction. Adhering to their center could be less tedious, once the identification is spot on.
    I believe real good Leaders help a lot in making others understand and appreciate what saltshaker is - at a point in time.