Set Up to Fail

“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere—it is within each of us.”

―Black Elk


It’s 5:00 p.m. on a Thursday, and the convenience store is packed. The line at the checkout counter steadily grows as new customers enter faster than the existing customers leave.

At the front of the line, behind the register, the employee never looks up. He’s wearing a short-sleeved company shirt with a name tag hanging at an angle. He toggles between the barcode scanner, the lottery ticket terminal, and the wall of cigarettes behind him. It’s all clearly new to him, and, to make matters worse, he’s on his own.

A sign at the checkout terminal to his left reads “Next register please.” The one to the right says the same. Off to the side the corporate mission statement is posted. It says something about “exceptional customer experience.” Minutes go by. The line builds as the lone employee toils. “Inquire within for excellent career opportunities” reads a sign near the door.

Eventually a supervisor emerges from the back. She’s clearly not happy. “I can help the next person in line,” she says in an exasperated voice, without looking up.

No one in line hears her, so no one moves.

“I can help the next person in line,” she says again, with increased irritation. Eventually the next person in line sees the opening and moves over.


Some might look at this scene and think, “It’s so hard to find quality help these days.” But as I stood in that line, that’s not what I was thinking.

I was thinking that what I was witnessing was a complete failure in corporate leadership. One new employee plunked on a register at rush hour when three fully trained staff members were needed. The printed signs in the store that claimed a commitment to service excellence and great career possibilities only made it worse. This was a corporate failure, not an employee failure.

This is the kind of company that gives work a bad name, and it happens all across America. When people at work struggle, it’s generally the responsibility of those who are leading them. It’s a failure in leadership. Humans are always capable of thriving. Likewise, poor leadership is equally capable of making humans struggle.

Take the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota, for example. It’s a place I’ve visited more than two dozen times in the past ten years, and I have many friends there. Statistically, Pine Ridge is the poorest place in America. Alcoholism, abuse, suicide, and other extreme social challenges all run well above the national average in this isolated and segregated community.

So, let’s look at how the people of Pine Ridge got there. They were literally hunted by the US Army to the brink of exhaustion and starvation in the 1870s. Those who survived were purposefully sequestered away from white society on reservations like this one, across the northern plains, and told they could not leave.

A century of genocide followed. The goal of it all was to “remove the Indian” and remake the survivors in the white man’s image. Missionaries forced haircuts and change of dress; children were transported east to unforgiving boarding schools; traditional ceremonies, and even their language itself, were banned. All the while, school textbooks described this historical period as the “winning of the West.”

Flash-forward to the present: Are you still surprised Pine Ridge is the poorest community in America?

Humans are built to thrive—that’s our natural state—but poor leadership can thwart it. Leadership is not about leaving a new employee alone on a cash register at rush hour and then showing him or her at the weekly huddle how bad the store metrics were during that shift. Humanity advancing leadership is about letting people know they are amazing exactly as they are, and surrounding them with the support systems that make them feel trusted, respected, valued, heard, and safe.

Wherever you see humans struggling at work, a failure in leadership is lurking close by.

“The more I help others succeed, the more I succeed.”

—Ray Kroc

Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. 

Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future.