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To establish yourself as a leader, one way to do it is to boldly plant your flag in the ground where no one dares stepping.
I had been a restaurant manager-in-training for about a month by the time I was given the opportunity to take off the training wheels. The general manager I was training under was going to be away for the weekend, so it was my chance to step up. He was the type of leader who led by brute force—instilling fear in his employees, belittling them and yelling at them if they made mistakes. As the new guy, I disagreed with his style, but it wasn’t my place or time say so. But within this culture of fear, there was a small faction of employees who were above the rules and the manager’s ire. They were the “untouchables”—friends of the owner who could have the schedule they wanted, serve the sections they wanted, and essentially do what they wanted with no fear of repercussion. They were safe. Having spent weeks working with the staff, I knew that most of them were unhappy and alienated by the toxic dynamic of the restaurant.
One of the “untouchables,” let’s call him “K,” was a friend of the owner’s wife’s son—not exactly the type of connection that should grant someone special status. But here he was, a waiter and the ringleader of the untouchables. Reminiscent of the archetypal middle school bully, he had the elegance of a bull in a china shop. He’d show up to work late, often hungover. He liked to have the same schedule every week—no Sundays or Mondays, and the same section of tables—right next to where the food comes out, so he didn’t have to walk far. While employees would have their phone taken from them for having it out on the floor, K would never be seen without his phone in his hands. He often made female employees uncomfortable, and would intimidate anyone who showed weakness. When others would be reprimanded for breaking a rule or making a mistake, he was empowered. Nobody would dare stand up to him, including the manager. No one said a word about his behavior, including the owner. And until this particular weekend, he could do no wrong.
Going into the weekend, and as a first-time restaurant manager, my only objective was to get through it in one piece. But for weeks, several employees had expressed their displeasure to me about the ongoing situation. I knew that if I didn’t take a stand against K, no one would. There was a section of tables outside where each server (except K) would typically rotate responsibility each week. On this particularly hot Spring day, out of part principle and part spite, I assigned K the outside tables—not his usual cozy section. When he realized what I had done, he became aggressively defiant. It got to the point where we were face-to-face (pre-COVID), and I gave him a simple ultimatum: work outside or go home. Knowing the incentives that drive him (power and money), I knew neither of those options appealed to him. Red-faced and outraged like a child who didn’t get his way, he eventually decided that he would rather not make money and go home than break a little sweat by working outside. The entire staff was stunned. The “new guy” had just taken down the big bully.
As a leader, respect and influence don’t just come to you, they have to be earned. Most leaders think they deserve to be respected because of their position of authority. And while that may be true to an extent, it won’t go very far for very long. I’m a huge believer in the Mimetic Theory of Leadership—if you give people influence and respect, they will give it back to you. It’s in the slow burn of relationship building where these leadership attributes develop. But when you encounter a bully like K, your respect and influence are on the line. By taking decisive action on that day, I may have made one enemy, but I gained an entire restaurant staff full of loyal followers.
To establish yourself as a leader, take a stand for what’s right. Take bold, decisive action for the good of the group, not the individual. Plant your flag where no one dares.
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