Leading leaders who lead change: The story of the monkey’s tears

Sitting 300 yards off the central coast of Dubai is the world’s only seven-star hotel — the Burj Al Arab. It’s design, which looks like a huge sail boat coming into port, is spectacular. It’s height, at 1,053 feet at a total of 60 stories, is baffling. It’s cost per night — averaging around $2015 — is startling. And its service of exceeding excellence for every individual visitor is like no other.

Jumeirah Group, the owner of the Burj Al Arab and dozens of other luxury hotels around the world, takes pride in providing a tailored experience in each of their locations. Even the hotels within site of each other in Dubai don’t resemble each other. Instead, the company leadership is investing in making the visit feel like an experience.

Both in architecture and with interior design, Jumeirah specializes each hotel for each destination. But, more interestingly, they don’t just put sea shells on hotel walls near a beach and photos of the Queen at the hotel near Buckingham Palace. Jumeirah also specifically utilizes art and artists from the cities and regions they service.

The leaders made a decision to invest in extraordinary experiences for their extraordinary guests.

But while the Burj Al Arab is certainly a spectacular point along the Dubai coastline, it’s not the city’s tallest hotel. Instead, that title belongs to the five-star, luxury JW Marriott Marquis Dubai.

Marriotts are all over the world. We’ve all probably stayed in at least one. And while the Marquis is a unique and individualized destination, with most of Marriott’s hotels: If you’ve stayed in one, you’ve pretty much stayed in them all. That ability for chain hotels to replicate rooms down to the exact details astounds me — the same way a Big Mac in San Antonio tastes the same as a Big Mac in St. Louis.

Jumeirah makes painstaking strides to reinvent how guests experience their luxurious stay, but most chain hotels work to achieve cheap, repeatable consistency in every corner. Jumeirah chooses to be unforgettable — providing a destination, an experience. The chains simply accept being completely replaceable — merely rooms with beds.


In 1978, social scientist Mark Granovetter argued that while crowds may quickly escalate to riots, it is not a collection of individuals performing the act. Instead, it is a phenomenon cast over the actors, making them perform differently as a lot of people than they would alone. Granovetter’s theory revolved on thresholds, or “the number or proportion of others who must make one decision before a given actor” will follow.

In a crowd of 100 people, a person with a threshold of zero will throw a brick through a window without provocation.

Someone with a threshold of one will throw a brick only after seeing someone throw the first brick. A threshold of two requires two people to go before joining in, and so on. All the way until a threshold of 99 — a person who will only join if everybody else is throwing bricks. (That person is probably your grandmother.)

In mid-August of 2014, we saw this unfold in Ferguson, Mo. People of the community gathered in a peaceful vigil for a teenager, who was murdered by a local police officer. The gathering, unfortunately, soon turned into a riot, with destruction, looting and grand arson.

Weeks later, I saw the wreckage firsthand. I asked, “How did this happen?”

“I don’t know,” said one resident, who had been in the streets during the riot. “I don’t know how it got that out of hand so quickly.”

The threshold model had rapidly unfolded. One person threw the first brick and, the next thing anyone knew, an entire community was scarred.

But this crowd was not made of bad people. It was just made of a lot of people.


We can also relate Granovetter’s theory to social movements. The civil rights campaigns of the 1960s that changed how people are treated and represented and the women’s suffragette movement of the early 20th century are both great examples. One person lead a small group of activists into a nation-wide conversation.

While Granovetter’s theory is soundly presented, I think it’s incomplete. Yes, a person with a threshold of one is important to movements, but — more important — is the person with a threshold of negative one.

A -1 Threshold means you’ll not only incite the movement, but incite others to start their own movement.


In every room of a Hyatt Regency, there’s a paintings of these three tall trees. The leaves have changed color. They’re a vibrant read. The trees are on a green hill. The sky fades from light blue to a deep navy. Again, it’s in every room of their hotels, so think about how much Hyatt spends just on copies of that one painting.

Da Fen is a village about 15 miles north of Hong Kong. It’s home to thousands of painters. These painters sit everyday and reproduce, with astounding speed, as many paintings as they can. They produce no original works, just copies of copies of copies. But the workers in Da Fen are so industrious that they produce one-third of all the world’s oil paintings. The majority of hotels paintings — like the one of the trees — come from shops in Da Fen Village.

There’s a story about one of the paintings from Da Fen. The painting is of a chimp, who is wearing a beanie cap with a propeller. The story goes that the chimp is crying, but, actually, he’s not. Turns out: a drop of water — from a cup or a leaky pipe or from condensation of a window — fell right below one of the chimp’s eye and smudged the painting. The tear isn’t a tear. The tear is an imperfection in the original that got replicated again and again.

But it’s not the painter’s job to ask questions. Her job is to do what she’s told: to make copies of what’s in front of her.

So many of us are in the position of the painter. We’re asked to just do our job and go home. But leaders — if you’ll join me in choosing to call yourself that — aren’t about the process. Leaders aren’t about “just doing your job” and then copying the water stain over again.

We’re about throwing the first brick, but more importantly about encouraging and inciting others to take action. Leaders carry a -1 in the Threshold Model.

Leaders want to change the world, but we want to see you change the world even more.

Leaders are about asking questions. Challenging things. Seeking to make sure what we’re doing (even if we’ve “always” done it) is the best thing to be doing.

Leaders are about drying the monkey’s tears.

**Feature image from M-n-M