A Lesson on Leadership . . . from a Crown Cork Bottle Cap

My favorite Saturday morning plan is brewing a pot of dark joe from freshly ground beans - with the goal of settling in with my cozy pajamas by around 8:00 am to watch a favorite news show.  If my husband isn’t golfing, he grabs a plate of fruit and joins me.  I love my laid-back Saturday mornings.

This past weekend, while waiting for Mike to get his cup of coffee, I turned to the wrong channel and caught a “The Mo You Know” survey on Mo Rocca’s Henry Ford Innovation Nation

His survey question displayed the picture below and asked what it was called. In my mind, I answered “Bottle Cap!”  And, after waiting through a commercial, I discovered I was right.


Mo shared a bit about the bottle cap inventor, William Painter.  And suddenly, I didn’t miss my news program at all! 

William Painter was a civil-war era, self-taught engineer working in the carbonated beverage industry – beer bottlers.  At the time, carbonated beverages were capped with a single-use cork.  Bottles were rounded on the bottom requiring they be stacked on their side, like wine bottles today, so the cork wouldn’t dry out and lose its seal, leaking the carbonation. 

A very practical problem to be solved! Painter’s solution: a metal cap with 24 flutes - resembling a crown - sealing the contents of the bottle. 

Called the Crown Cork, Painter’s invention was patented in 1892. 


What does a bottle cap have to do with leadership?

What “Mo-stly” caught my attention in Mo Rocca’s Saturday morning vignette is that William Painter’s invention resulted in the international standardization of bottlenecks so that any carbonated beverage would be sealed by the Crown Cork. Initially for bottled beer, then during prohibition, for soft drinks.  His simple Crown Cork became the cornerstone cap that shaped the bottling industry over a century ago - and continues today. Go ahead, check out the bottle cap on your Leinenkugel Summer Shandy or Miller Light.

Now that’s the cap wagging the bottle (or the tail wagging the dog)!

I reflected on how a single change-oriented leader can implement a seemingly insignificant tool or practice that transforms a culture – just like the Crown Cork shaped the bottling industry.  I call these “cornerstone shifts.”  Simple, easy to implement practices that, in the short-term, may not seem significant.  But in the long-term, culture is shaped by those cornerstone shifts.


No-Cost, Easy to To Implement

Here are five no cost and proven examples of cornerstone shifts any Crown Cork Leader can easily implement:

  1. Starting and ending meetings on time
  2. Implementing a simple feedback loop like the Stop-Start-Continue framework
    1. What are we doing today, that if we stopped, would increase our effectiveness?
    2. What are we not doing today, that if we started, would increase our effectiveness?
    3. What are we doing today, that if we continued or did more, would increase our effectiveness?
  3. Scheduling monthly 1-hour learning lunches where one team member (not the leader) picks a TED Talk to view together and facilitates the discussion. Our team members rate potlucks as their favorite menu during these learning lunches.  Something special happens when we contribute to a meal and share it together.
  4. Having quarterly Milestone conversations with each team member where you discuss the following 7 questions. I ask the team member to write down their responses and email them to me the day before so I can review in advance.
    1. What do you find most exciting or rewarding?
    2. What is most frustrating or least rewarding?
    3. What do you need from me or the firm to help you do your job?
    4. How have you contributed to the mission and goals of the team or organization?
    5. What ideas do you have about how we can improve?
    6. What would you like to learn this quarter and how can I help?
    7. Is there anything else you would like to discuss?

As a manager, I respond to three questions:  1) Your greatest strengths and major contributions, 2) opportunities for growth and learning, and 3) a summary statement.

  1. Take walking meetings instead of sitting at a desk or table.

The consistent practice of any of these five simple tools will begin to transform your culture – like the Crown Cork shaped the bottling industry. 

When leaders intentionally shape culture with simple, replicable tools, cool things can happen.  In Painter’s case, the Crown Cork is considered an early form of a disposable product.  A decade later, the Crown Cork inspired King G. Gillette to invent – you guessed it – disposable razors.

I've Grown Fond of Mr. Painter

It’s common to imagine an innovator like Painter to be brilliant, tough, unwavering.  At least, that’s the portrait that formed in my mind. Until I came across a memoir Painter’s son, Orrin, published in 1914. While reading, I found myself growing fond of Mr. Painter.

  • He was raised in a simple, Quaker family
  • A renaissance-man, he read and wrote poetry and serenaded his family playing the flute
  • He was self-taught and did not hold a degree other than from what his son refers to as the School of Hard Knocks
  • Orrin’s favorite quotes from his dad include, “The only way to do a thing is to do it.” And “A stitch in time saves eleven.”
  • William Painter struggled with what his son calls nervous prostration, experiencing at least two nervous breakdowns following his Crown Cork invention
  • Orrin thought perhaps his father worked too hard, and he closes his reminiscing with “I can truthfully say, no parents could possibly be more loving and kind than mother and father were to my sisters and myself, and to their loving ministration we shall never cease to be grateful.”
  • He held 85 patents, one granted posthumously, including multiple bottle cap revisions, a bottle cap opener, a machine for the automated capping of bottles, other patents for lamp wicks, pumps, an automated telephone signal, and a paper folding machine.
  • His Crown Cork and Seal company, now Crown Holdings, continues to thrive as a Fortune 500 company

What’s a Crown Cap Cornerstone Shift you can implement this week?  Want help?  Our methods are time-proven and incorporate scientific techniques for helping you break through the status-quo and focus on results.  Click here to get started.


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