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How a Street Sweeper Touched My Heart

by | Essay

A few years ago, I was on vacation at Disney World with my wife and three kids. I dislike crowds and hate standing in line, especially in the heat. I’m not even a fan of Disney’s long library of stories. So, you can imagine my mood when I was given the assignment of staking out a spot along the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street where the entire family could watch the parade.

If you haven’t been to Disney World, or experienced their lavish parades, they are a big deal. There are lots of characters, on foot and on colorful floats, dancing to familiar Disney tunes. Parades are a major attraction for children, and the adults who are Disney fanatics. As a parent, you will have failed miserably if you arrive to the parade late and find that your child is unable to see all of the fun that’s going on in the street. Getting a quality spot along the parade route matters.

So, that was my assignment—get a good spot and save it for the rest of the family. I succeeded and I found a great spot. Standing with me was my youngest son, who at the time was three years old.

As we found ourselves standing in place, nearly forty-five minutes early, I grew grumpy. I was tired, my legs and back were aching, and I was hot—super hot. My son was holding a bag of popcorn and, suddenly, he dropped it. As he dropped it, he realized the gravity of the moment and immediately started to sob. He pulled on my arm and insisted we get another bag of popcorn. But, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t leave because that would risk losing our spot along the parade route.

While I was pondering my options and trying valiantly to ignore my son’s pleas, a street sweeper appeared. The man did his job and promptly swept up the spilled popcorn and then he left.

But to my surprise, and to my son’s delight, the same street sweeper returned within seconds, holding a fresh bag of popcorn. He leaned down, handed it to my son, and smiled.

As they say at Disney, it was a “magical moment.” It was magical because it alleviated some of the anxiety I was feeling about being a bad parent. It was magical because it made a little boy happy. It was magical because it was a small example of Disney’s strategy in play.

That street sweeper might be one of the lowest paid employees on the Disney payroll. He certainly doesn’t have a fancy title or a privileged parking space. In most organizations, he would understandably feel detached from those at the top who dictate the strategy and reap the financial rewards from its implementation.

This gentleman, however, lived the brand in perhaps the most profound way. From what I know about Disney, I bet it was because he knew and accepted his part in the company’s strategy. He felt empowered to serve and to please. Although his job description probably includes sweeping the streets, his role was broad enough for him to find his own way to make our experience magical. And, he did.

I’ve been telling this story for years now, giving Disney lots of free press. I’ve since learned that Disney literally calls its employees Cast Members. As a cast member, employees are expected to play their role in creating a magical experience for every customer.

Every strategy needs people who are willing and capable of playing their part. Give them a role and then allow them the freedom to pursue it with passion and pride.

About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.