The Ritz Carlton: A Deep Standard of Excellence

In the early 1900’s, the Ritz Carlton group had many hotels scattered throughout the United States; Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlantic City and Boca Raton. However, by 1940 only the property in Boston remained.

The reasons for the Boston Property’s survival are the same reasons it became the standard for all other Ritz Carlton properties that followed. It revolutionized hospitality in America by creating luxury in a hotel setting: It placed customer satisfaction as the highest order. Systems were aligned and Amenities purchased that afforded guests the highest level of satisfaction in their hotel experience. Once that service was perfected, other properties followed. Each holding to the standards that the Boston property had modeled.

From one leader to another, let me ask you… Is there a deep standard of excellence in your organization? Are your Guiding Principles centered around the customer or the organization and her employees? Is your commitment to excellence genuine or is it a general rule?

You do not become the best you can be organizationally without high standards for excellence. Furthermore, those standards must be non-negotiable. The Ritz Carlton has an impeccable reputation and it is because it’s standard for excellence does not waver.

Consider this one profound question?

What is said of your organization after one first encounters it?

Answering that question accurately can bring transformation to your organization.

Leadership Minute filmed at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta

Steps

It was 1989 and the Berlin Wall had just fallen. To the envy of every good and young adventurer, I was privileged to be sitting upon it when it did. Armed with a sledgehammer and spray paint (more about that later) we carved out a memory that would last a lifetime. The end of the soviet era came crumbling down and I was honored to have played a role in it, one hammer throw after another. I still treasure the barbed wire and slabs of the wall that I was able to transport home in my carry-on luggage, a pre-9/11 luxury that we will never see again. Many were the lessons of that night, but there was one in particular; getting robbed at knifepoint. In the midst of the excitement and speed of the soviet fall, entrepreneurialism fell upon the region just as hard and fast. Allow me to explain.

From the time that the wall began to teeter until the moment the first slab hit the ground in a swirl of soviet dust, vendors sprung up selling souvenirs, pieces of concrete, key chains and of course hammers. It was as if they were just below the surface of the earth and with the thud of the first slab of concrete, they sprung forth in mid-sentence selling their wares. It was a rented sledgehammer that plays center stage in my story. You see, my friend Greg and I rented a pair of them to leave our mark on history. At the first sign of crumble, the entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism drove dozens of future ex-soviet tycoons to purchase sledgehammers and rent them out so that every tourist in Europe could stake claim to a portion of the previously infamous barrier to freedom. Genius!

Fast forward.

By the end of the evening, pockets full of concrete and barbed wire, we began walking to the place where we were going to return our sledgehammers. That’s when it happened! An obviously late-to-the-party and disgruntled would-be entrepreneur accosted me with a knife. It wasn’t much of a knife, but it was a knife with an attitude behind it. I’m guessing he went to the local hardware store to fulfill his entrepreneurial dreams and found that they had sold out of sledgehammers, so he decided to steal a few so that he too could open his “tools of destruction” franchise.

This was one of those moments where a rush of things happen in a microsecond and life gets crystal clear. I know that what follows is going to seem like too much information to process in a second, but they are the crystal clear thoughts that rushed through my mind which allowed me to make some good decisions. You see, my assailant was about 5′-5″ tops and I am 6′-4″. He had a little knife at the end of a short arm. I had a sledgehammer at the end of mine. He had a nervous, desperate demeanor and I had a clear path to his destruction. You see, when it comes to fight-or-flight, the younger—less sanctified—me didn’t do the flight thing very well. With the length of my arms and the added 18″ of the sledgehammer, my new friend was going to fall as quickly as the Berlin Wall. He was in the danger zone, not me! He would need to take two of three full steps before I would have been in any danger, plenty of time for me to end his run. That’s when…

Spray paint.

I told you I would pick up on this later… Great timing, right?! Anyway, prior to our bludgeoning the wall with our sledgehammers, Greg and I purchased several cans of spray paint. In our thinking, the wall was coming down, there was media coverage everywhere, so we stayed ahead of the falling slabs of concrete with holy graffiti proclaiming the Word of God. We were creating Berlin Wall sized gospel tracts that the world would see on CNN. It was fun. Now, I don’t recommend graffiti generally, but hey, each slab was coming down in minutes… whom would it hurt? It was an opportunity for the world to see some powerful scriptures being painted by crazy Americans in a frenzied Germany. Sometimes life just moves quickly…

Clarity.

Returning to our would-be musketeer with his little sword. He is now twitching… Really! Ready to attack. In that moment, after all the thoughts about his size and mine, arm length, weapons, angle of attack, strike position, and aftermath, I though about the last scripture I had painted on the wall, John 3:16. Yes it’s true. I wondered who may have seen me paint that scripture and might also see me turn my new friend into a tent peg. I thought about the new me that Father had created only five years earlier and I let the sledgehammer go limp in my hand, handing it to this thief. That was tough! But I learned something valuable, that the war of the flesh can teach us important life lessons.

I have learned much from that experience so many years ago. I continue to ruminate over it regularly. Mostly, I am glad I did the right thing so that I pleased Father. Secondly, I am glad because I might still be rotting in a ex-Russian now German prison (smile/wink).

Allow me to share my latest thoughts about that amazing moment. Sometimes the best action in leadership is to take the stance of knowing the current reality intimately and acting on what is best to do in the greater picture even though your gut tells you differently. From our thief’s perspective, the right thing to do was to take two or three very clear steps toward his goal. From my perspective, it meant evaluating the situation and acting on what was best for all parties. It’s an easy thing in leadership to walk without strategy—taking steps—hoping it will all work out… At least you’ll be shown to be busy. That approach would have cost our thief some serious pain. It’s a harder thing in leadership to shelve your impulses and review all relevant data, applying it to your immediate context, and then acting strategically. It is a less visceral response, and it is ultimately and usually the correct one. The first is birthed of urgency and the other of importance. To him, his attack was urgent, my response, important.

As I process this line of thinking more, I am reminded how we are culturally inundated with immediate gratification solutions to every conceivable situation. I believe we are deeply harmed by this as a society. Nothing good comes quick, easy and without thought. Doing the right thing is hard, not easy. It is slow, not fast.

As an individual in a culture of progress, commercialism and immediate gratification it is increasingly easy to fall into a plug-and-play mentality as it pertains to everyday life. However, as leaders, we must be on guard with advisors who appeal to such approaches in our pursuit of transformational change. Lasting, impactful change cannot be achieved so easily. Think about the quickstep books that have invaded our leadership development and church planting culture. Transformational change demands a familiarity with one’s personal current reality and no book can provide that context. Each of us possesses books in our library that have titles like:

Twelve Dynamic Steps to Success
The Eight Practices for Transformation
Ten Principals for Renewal

Am I saying that such books have no value whatsoever? No. Only that our dependence upon them, or the expectation we place upon their methodologies have to be weighed. In them, you will not find your Aha. The Aha comes with a deep understanding of your immediate context. Steps without clear objectives can be hazardous. Think about the two steps that my 5′-5″ musketeer was going to take. Two steps to tragedy. I’ve done the research. Here are some other steps that may help drive the point home.

Eleven steps to the end of the plank on a pirate ship.
One step out of bounds at the half-yard line.
135 steps for a dead man walking at sing-sing prison.

Think about this; steps without strategy are dangerous. As a leader appointed by Father, you have an obligation to think strategically, to define and engage your current situation, to get the facts, counsel, and numbers. Measure everything. Rely on His voice. React to the important before the urgent, and show yourself approved.

Iguazu Falls

In the war of the waterfalls the clear victor is Iguazu. Speaking with the “voz” of experience, Iguazu takes down Niagara like Rocky took down Apollo Creed.

You see, Apollo had a terrifying punch, it was uber powerful. But Rocky…

Rocky just punched and punched and punched again. Relentless. He wears you down until you are near dead and convulsing on the mat. Then, as the crowd cheers, you thank him for punching you! Curious.

Such is Iguazu Falls.

The chasm between Iguazu and Niagara is vast. Sure, Niagara looks taller and because of its shear breadth takes your breath away. Iguazu however cannot be grasped. Over 270 waterfalls combine to put the visitor in sensory overload. Cranial Mayhem! Some falls are seemingly as wide as Niagara, others only six to twelve inches wide but falling into deep chasms before coming out into the river. This staggering beauty is breathtaking. I thought to myself;

“Only God paints this well.”

Once you arrive, you can take a train into the park where the trailheads begin. There are three trails from the Argentinian side of the falls. These trails are either paved or grated iron which makes the ascents and descents quite easy. The uppermost trail is under construction so that leaves the rim and river trails to explore. The top trail simply brings you to the top of what is called the Devil’s Throat which is a spectacular horseshoe of water, caving in on itself from all directions and spewing an eternal mist out of its mouth and skyward. I didn’t feel like I missed anything by not having access considering I took a boat into the devil’s mouth to the point I am surprised the pilot could retain his bearings to get us out. We were so far down the Devil’s Throat that the cascade actually fell directly into the boat. You are quite literally blinded by the force of the spray and many who were not wearing glasses regretted their inability to open their eyes. Glad I brought mine though it was still blinding. I felt like that stupid teenager that tells his buddy to power wash his face. For a moment I thought things were going south because the boat was filling with water. Roughest shower I ever had. Pleased to report though, I am alive… and by the way, exceedingly clean!

Back to the trails.

I walked the upper path first. It allows you to peer over the edge of several of the falls and takes you to a vantage point that looks to the most photographed vista. It is beautiful. Here, unlike the Devil’s Throat, you can get great pictures because the mist does not destroy your camera or fill the lens with those accursed water spots that always seem to place themselves directly over your face or causes your head to look like it has a bowling ball sized tumor coming out of it. The upper trail was beautiful but there is nothing like the view of a waterfall from the bottom.

The lower trail cuts through the jungle in a way that you don’t see anything until you see everything. Like walking in on someone in the shower… One minute nothing, then everything! You turn the corner, clear the tree, pass the boulder, and Bam! Huge, amazing, roaring whitewater goodness. Hello!

The cool part of walking the trails could be a sport called “The Dodging of the Coatís.” A coatí is cat sized mammalian breed of freaky striped anteater looking timidity that must be part rabbit because that little dude has babies everywhere. Oh did I mention how cute the babies are. Very!

After walking to the end of the lower trail, which really is not at river level, but more like mid-to-lower falls, you can continue on to the boat ride which I spoke of earlier. For a reasonable fee about $32 you can ride a powerboat to experience the falls. I’ll post that one on YouTube!

Needless to say, it’s one more adventure in the life of this very privileged man. Besides the most important things; God’s gift of a godly woman and mother, and two incredible kids that I could not be more proud of, he continues to bless me with the experiences of a lifetime. Earlier I said;

“Only God paints this well.”

For the record, I intend to visit every gallery that I can in this wonderful museum of His, until the day I meet him face to face.

Blessings!
December 2014

Here’s the Video