Diversity, Leadership

The Meaning of First Coffee—and a Reflection on Martin Luther King Jr.

By Bob Bruner-

“The universe is so structured that things do not quite work out rightly if men are not diligent in their concern for others. The self cannot be self without other selves. I cannot reach fulfillment without thou. Social psychologists tell us that we cannot truly be persons unless we interact with other persons. All life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

“First Coffee? What’s in it for me? Leave me alone so I can do my email.” A student said this to me some years ago, exasperated after I asked him to join me for First Coffee at the end of the first class period. I replied, “It’s really not about you; it’s about all of us.” The student came along rather grudgingly. Perhaps First Coffee was the turning point. He’s gone on to career success. We’ve been friends over many years since then. I think the outcome has to do with Martin Luther King’s “I” versus “thou.”

First Coffee, which starts up again tomorrow, is one of the oldest traditions at Darden, a daily gathering for free coffee from 9:25 to 10:00 a.m. every school day. Faculty, staff, and students show up and mingle over fresh-brewed java. In the spectacular weather of Virginia’s fall and spring, we hold this outside; in other weather we gather in the big atrium in Saunders Hall. Bang on the dot at 10:00, the place is deserted as classes resume.

Darden’s alums recall First Coffee most affectionately—even my student, who years ago, resisted the invitation to First Coffee. Why is that? Indeed, as my student asked, what is in it for anyone?

Quite simply this: First Coffee affirms that Darden (or any enterprise) is greater than the sum of its parts. Each of us wants to be part of something greater—First Coffee affords a daily reminder of what that “something” might be. Of course, there is an obvious utilitarian advantage to First Coffee: I get a great deal of business done in a series of brief conversations with colleagues and students; and for social networkers, First Coffee really hones your ability to work a room. But there’s so much more to First Coffee than utility: you connect with one another in ways that transcend work and competition. You practice empathy (“how are you doing after your illness?”), social awareness (“how does Chinese New Year compare with American New Year?”), conflict management (“I didn’t mean to disrespect your analysis in class”), engagement (“let’s organize a round of golf/tennis/bowling/cricket”), and so on. First Coffee is part of Darden’s “secret sauce” that produces the extraordinary bonding among students, faculty, and staff.

To some people, First Coffee might look like a mundane daily routine. Yet it models for us the kind of casual connectivity that business leaders must practice in order to have high impact in their enterprises. From time-to-time we hear about the virtue of Management By Walking Around (MBWA). Darden offers an excellent practicum in this: MBHOAFC (Management By Hanging Out At First Coffee). Come to First Coffee and learn.

The relevance of First Coffee comes to mind because of the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose annual holiday the U.S. will observe on Monday, January 21.

A figure of heroic proportions, he rocked the world. Between the publication of his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, in 1958 and his assassination in 1968 he led an extraordinary nonviolent movement against racism. He achieved this by building a community. As James Washington put it, “In this brief span of time, the United States experienced a moral, religious, and political revolution whose tremors were felt around the world.” And they are still being felt. I have blogged a thankful remembrance of King in previous years (see this, this, this, this, this, and this.) His writings are so rich, deep, and relevant to the development of business leaders that I don’t expect to run out of reflections any time soon.

As we start up the second semester and resume gatherings such as First Coffee, King affords a valuable reminder that to build a vibrant community, to achieve high performance, or to lead change in an organization requires active outreach, engagement, and most importantly commitment: “I cannot reach fulfillment without thou.” We can think of the “garment of destiny” as the eventual fate of an organization; such a garment depends on threads of commitment. My years as a leader have taught me that Martin Luther King got it exactly right.

Martin Luther King, Jr. day affords an opportunity to reflect on King’s example and his relevance to our work and lives. And First Coffee affords a daily reminder that growth as leaders depends on committing to King’s “inescapable network of mutuality.”