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One thing you learn immediately in leadership is that in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to lead from within the fishbowl. It’s hard to see what’s ahead if you’re stuck in the weeds. It’s hard to see over the trees if you’re lost in the forest. To gain a grasp of a difficult situation, the first thing any leader should prioritize is detachment.
Before the grand opening of our brand-new restaurant, I had about 80 relatively young and inexperienced members of my staff. I knew that on the first night, the place would be jam-packed with customers, and it would be easy for many of my people to wilt under the pressure. The hostesses at the front of the restaurant were particularly at risk—they are the first faces a customer sees when they walk in. And with a few hundred guests expected for dinner, if even one sensed any tension or anxiety from our staff the moment they stepped through that front door, it could set off a chain reaction that would negatively impact the entire restaurant experience.
A restaurant chain reaction goes something like this: if the hostess is overwhelmed, they tend to rush and make mistakes. If the customer is the recipient of those mistakes, they must wait longer for a table and become irritated. If they become irritated, they begin to complain. Other patient guests overhear their complaints and suddenly an entire pocket of the restaurant is irritated. This can lead to less-than-pleasant interactions between customers and the servers. The servers’ mood inevitably deteriorates with such an accumulation of negativity. The stress they begin to feel results in tense interactions with the kitchen staff. The kitchen staff, now in a bad mood, will make more mistakes with the plates they put out, further displeasing the customers. Customers, angry that they had to wait so long for bad food, go online and leave negative reviews of the restaurant, influencing potential future customers who will be deciding one day between us and the restaurant down the street. It’s a downward spiral that can be disastrous for a restaurant. One single night can have such an effect, all because of a customer’s initial encounter with an overwhelmed hostess.
So, as a leader, how did my detachment possibly help this situation? I knew that the hostess is the linchpin for a customer’s restaurant experience. I knew that it would be critical for them to embrace tunnel vision to avoid being overwhelmed. Having confidence in my team, I was able to trust each one of them and empower them to do only the specific job they trained for. I told my hostesses to focus only on what was directly in front of them, and I would take care of what was around them. While they zoomed in, I zoomed out. I created space from the heat of the moment. I was able to see things play out at a slower speed and from a perspective no one else could. I could see if any part of the chain was weakening, and jump in to assist. My detachment from the situation was my biggest advantage, and I was able to mitigate negative effects almost immediately.
Common leadership advice says to always lead from the front. In fact, I talk a lot about leading from the front: setting the example, being someone people want to emulate, and establishing the tone for the organization. But there’s a saying that goes something like, “the more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in wartime.” And by dividing my leadership style into two distinct phases, it gave me the flexibility my team needed to support them. In peacetime, we’d focus on training, we’d focus on habits, and we’d focus on mindset. These are the moments when I led from the front. My people needed to learn how to operate in certain situations, and in peacetime, my example was their template. But in “wartime,” there was no time to be analytical. My team had to rely on their instincts and perform intuitively. They had to rely on their training to do their specific job to the best of their abilities. As a leader in “wartime” situations, leading from the front would have looked like me making pizzas or doing the dishes. And while this mindset can help specific links in the chain, it ignores all of the other links at the same time. Leading from the front in wartime prevents you from seeing around corners and through the fog—something your team cannot do when their heads are down, working.
Lead from the front in peacetime. Lead from the rear in wartime. Because when your team is overwhelmed in the heat of the moment, they will need you to be their eyes and ears. And you can only do that if you embrace the power of detachment.
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