Leaders of Character: Doug Brooks, Chairman and CEO of Brinker International

I had the privilege of discussing the issue of character with Doug Brooks, CEO of Brinker International, the parent company of Chili’s, On the Border and Maggiano’s restaurants. Our agency has the honor of working with Doug’s team on a variety of interactive projects, including the recent relaunch of Chilis.com. The conversation was prompted by my attendance at the annual gala for Limbs for Life, a fundraiser for an organization that provides artificial limbs for those who would otherwise be without, for which Doug serves as both a board member and the event co-chair.

I had heard the story about how he had lost a leg from a jogging accident in 1998 and was inspired by both his courage and his sense of responsibility to help others through this foundation. I asked him about the importance of character in being an effective leader in both the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds. He is quite passionate about the subject and shared some of his thoughts and the wisdom he gained from his mentors.

On Respect: “My first job was as a dishwasher in a fried chicken restaurant when I was 13. I had two managers, Mike and Bob, whose different styles made quite an impression on me at an early age. Mike would look me in the eye, call me by name and say things like ‘Doug, nice job on the dishes today.’ On the other hand,  Bob would yell across the kitchen, ‘Hey you, you missed a spot.’ That experience has stuck with me for over 40 years. I learned a lot about respect: If you give it, you’ll get it.”

“I once heard Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, put it this way, ‘You have to respect every job in the company and the person in it.'”

On Courtesy: “Norman Brinker, our founder, used to say, ‘It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.'”

On Honesty: “It is important for me to give my team members honest feedback because I care. I’m on their side and I want them to be better.”

On Leaders: “We once had Lou Holtz, former head coach of Notre Dame football, talk to a group of Chili’s managers. He said there were three questions he expected that all of his players should be able to answer about him as their leader. Can I trust you? Do you care about me? Do you want to win (do you share my goals)?”

On Courage: “When I lost my leg in 1998, I had to decide if it was going to be an excuse to feel sorry for myself. Some things you just can’t control. Lack of character leads to excuses.”

On being a role model: “The way I behave sets the tone.”

One other attribute that Doug did not talk about was humility. He doesn’t like to talk about himself and rarely grants interviews. But Doug is a humble leader, and that has endeared him even more to those who have gotten to know him. Count me as one of the fortunate ones!

This is the first interview in this series. If you know of other leaders of character who are worth following, please let me know. I’d like to get their insights as well.