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Leading with Character: An Oasis of Civility

I’m excited about this week’s blog because it brings back fond memories of good times. Happy times. Even when times aren’t so good, I enjoy traveling back in my mind to pull those positive memories forward and brighten my day.

The Importance of a Civil Society
One of those happy times in my life was during 2007-2008 when I served as commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s boot camp in Cape May, NJ. The place pulsed with energy from vibrations like you’d get at a rock concert. But instead of musical instruments, the noise came from formations of new recruits sounding off in cadence as they marched. It made me proud and happy to watch the recruits transform from civilians—young high school graduates in most cases—into basically trained Coast Guard men and women ready to serve their nation, in just eight weeks.

Outside the gates of the training center stands a Wawa convenience store. Another source of energy. For those of you east coasters who know Wawa, the name may bring a smile to your face. It does to mine.

Last week, I was engaged in a conversation with a good friend, Captain Dick Healing, who is a retired Coast Guard officer. We’d both been on the road, so we talked of travels and cultures. I commented about the importance of a civil society, and how it seems that over time social media, the Covid pandemic, changing cultural norms, and much more have all led to a steady breakdown in civility. Dick agreed, and took me by surprise when he noted there was an exception: Wawa. He explained, Wawa is “an oasis of civility.” That description captured my imagination!

Benevolent Goodwill
How, you ask, can a convenience store possibly be an oasis of civility? Let’s go back to that Wawa outside the gates of the Coast Guard training center in Cape May, NJ. When you enter the store, it’s likely that someone exiting holds the door for you, and you may even exchange pleasantries as you pass each other. Inside, up-beat music plays on the sound system, and there’s an inspirational quotation hand-written behind the counter. People in the crowded store are energetic and pleasant as they fix their coffee and place their sandwich orders. Again, there’s a special vibe, like at the training center. Overall, there’s an atmosphere of what I call benevolent goodwill. Customers enter a Wawa store perhaps tired or preoccupied, and with a straight face…but they leave energized and smiling.

Core Values and Purpose
So, what is Wawa’s recipe for success? It’s far more than just the products they sell. With more and more workers returning to offices this fall, leaders should think about how they can replicate the Wawa magic. How can you create a workplace climate that inspires people to want to be in the office with their colleagues instead of at home alone?

Looking back, I took the happy Wawa atmosphere for granted all those years and never gave it much thought. But, Dick’s comment caused me to dig deeper to discover more about the company’s recipe for success. And sure enough, I found a lesson for leaders. Going to the website, I pulled up Wawa’s Core Purpose: Fulfilling Lives, Every Day. That purpose is backed by strong core values like “delight customers” and “do things right.” At the heart of it, I believe Wawa is “an oasis of civility” because the organization’s purpose and core values inspire happy employees who in turn inspire happy customers. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Creating an Oasis of Civility
I always walk out of a Wawa store with a smile on my face and a spring in my step, energized and ready to face the day. Looking back, I can tap into that same energy to sustain happiness regardless of the challenges I may face today, or tomorrow. Leaders who are happy are likely, in turn, to spread that energy throughout the workforce, helping create an “oasis of civility” right there in the office.

Look in the mirror. As a leader, what can you do this fall to create “an oasis of civility” as people return to the office environment?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: