CHEERS: LEARNING GOOD LEADERSHIP FROM BEHIND A BAR
Not only might “everybody know your name” at the corner bar, you can pick up some valuable lessons about organizational leadership there as well.
That’s the surprising contention of Helen Rothberg, a professor in the management school at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, and a leadership consultant, whose new book is entitled “The Perfect Mix: Everything I know about leadership I learned as a bartender” (Atria Books, 2017).
As you might expect from that title, Rothberg brings none of the typical academic stuffiness to this important topic. Instead, the 164-page book is a quick read, filled with real-life examples where either good or bad leadership is brought to life.
Rothberg tended bar -- while working toward her goal of a college teaching career and earning a Ph.D. -- at a couple of New York restaurants, which may not have been exactly like the one in the hit TV show “Cheers,” but had a family feeling with a similarly close-knit team of employees and many regular customers.
“Getting involved with bartending, mingling management and cocktails, brought me to a place where I could learn what works and what doesn’t; what mixes well and what should never be combined,” Rothberg writes.
Here’s what she learned: “Leaders know who they are and who they need to become. They recognize that life is fluid and what has worked in the past might not work in the future. They are confident seekers of knowledge. They embrace what is new and unknown with courage and grace.
“This is life behind the bar. This is life leading an organization. Sometimes you stir, sometimes you shake, and sometimes you blend. Bartenders develop the instinct to know what to do and when to stand back and watch, when to share what they know and when to say nothing.”
She illustrates these learnings through a series of entertaining stories:
- A fight between a regular customer and a new one who had insulted the bartender demonstrated the risks of miscommunication.
- Her flying elbows in street basketball games with the guys and their taunts taught her that what is done outweighs what is said.
- The savvy way she rid the restaurant of a selfish team member without firing her, and instead making it seem like leaving was her idea.
- How offputting to the team it was when the boss revamped and renamed the restaurant overnight without involving anyone else in the big decision.
Rothberg’s leadership consulting work with major companies also led her to include examples of how she worked with them to develop good leadership. A consistent theme in the book is that good management is not the same as good leadership.
“Management is about creating certainty in an uncertain world… Leadership is about achieving vision. It is a gateway for risk taking,” she writes.
Rothberg leaves readers with a snappy acronym to survive and thrive during an organization’s ups and downs.
“To lead yourself through change with confidence and optimism, you need ADVICE: Action, Determination, Vision, Integrity, Communication and Empathy,” she writes. “There is no room for complacency, negativity or comfort. Courage is driven by hope of something better, not the fear of being inadequate.”
Poor leadership holds an organization back and hurts its employees’ morale and productivity. Failure to communicate properly is a symptom.
“Successful communication demands that both the sender and receiver engage in active attention,” Rothberg writes. “There’s a saying: ‘You should communicate with two ears and one month.’”
Among Rothberg’s other pearls of wisdom about leadership:
- “A good manager can get things done in the dark. A good leader turns on the lights.”
- “Integrity pushes leaders to see situations for what they are, not what they want them to be.”
- “Empathy is at the heart of leadership… people enable organizations to do what they do. It is worth the effort to get to know people.”
- “Communication: Before is usually better than after.”
- “Evolved leaders admit when they are wrong and then take action; they use the opportunity to learn and do things differently… Fear of the unknown, adverse outcomes, or personal disappointment can lead to inaction, which is when people, relationships, and organizations can get stuck.”
- “Managers, leaders, and employees never have enough time, so they rely on experiences and perceptions to make decisions quickly…. That’s why smart people can make less-than-optimal choices when relying on surface impressions…. Leaders need to not be swayed by first impressions … They need fortitude and determination to dig deeper, to invest more precious time into understanding people, places and things, and to go beyond visible assets.”
If you don’t take anything else away from this book, you are set for several happy hours because each chapter of the book concludes with a real drink recipe that Rothberg tailors to the advice being dispensed -- “Add a twist of risk and a dash of action.”
And don’t forget to tip.
Paul Keep is one of eight consultants with The Leadership Group LLC, a 20-year-old statewide leadership development consulting firm. He formerly was editor of The Grand Rapids Press and three other Michigan newspapers.