If you are tuned in to your environment you can draw valuable lessons from everywhere. You have to be open-minded and clear-eyed but you really can come up on some incredible insights just about any place you happen to be at a given time. From my own experience I can testify that the most valuable lesson that I ever learned about leadership and management I learned when I was a teenager bussing tables at a steak house restaurant a stone’s throw from Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta (now, Hartsfield-Jackson, of course).
From all appearances my busboy job was a typical one for a high school senior trying to save up some money before heading off to college. I took all the hours I could get so I could have cash for the partying needs of a 19 year old in addition to the savings. The savings project was an epic fail as I partied a little too much before leaving home and hit Ann Arbor to start school with the whopping sum of $236 remaining from my escapades after almost a year of work. But I had fun going broke and decided I’d just figure it out along the way. Wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did but I learned a great lesson that has stayed with me more than two decades later.
But what was a roaring success out of my busboy experience was what I learned about leading a team and managing people. There was a team of 4 managers at the Steak & Ale I worked at and two of them created a contrast so stark that it seemed they had been placed there as some sort of a an industrial psychology laboratory experiment. I won’t oversimplify the matter by saying that John was the good guy and Gary was the bad guy because life is almost never that simple. But I will not hesitate to report that John was an example of every management success that I ever had and I can trace my management failures back to traits that I can immediately assign to examples from Gary.
Examples abound of the divergence in these guys’ approaches but I can sum it up with the old “ham and eggs” analogy you have probably heard a time or two over the years. It bears repeating here:
When you look down at your delicious ham and eggs breakfast, there were two parties that brought it to you- a pig and a chicken. The chicken was involved and invested, but the pig was fully committed and dedicated.
The most highly effective managers are pigs and the middle of the road performers are chickens. To be sure, that is painting with a broad brush but it holds up nonetheless.
Because we were right by the airport, our restaurant could get busy very suddenly and it could be a bitch to keep up- even for a youngster with all the energy in the world. Stern, firm and young as I was, If a plane landed at Hartsfield an hour ago full of conventioneers headed downtown for a conference, the crew at Steak & Ale were about to get hit hard and the first one to feel the pain would be me. We’d make some money but we’d get our asses kicked doing it because if you have any pride at all in your work, you don’t think about the excuse for why you can’t perform, you think about performing- even the low-man on the totum pole which was me.
And while there is a very firm management structure at corporate chain restaurants, when a wave was taking me under and John was on shift, it was only a matter of time before I’d see him purposefully striding past the hostesses, grabbing a bus tub and starting to clear tables in whatever room I was trying to keep clean.
He didn’t make a big deal out of it- he’d just do it and he’d do it well- almost as fast as me. And John would let me know he was in it until the wave was under control- “I got you, Harris- Relax, youngblood, we’re good!”
If Gary was in the house when all hell broke loose, forget about it. I didn’t necessarily dislike Gary but when that wave hit and the busboys were drowning, Gary hectored and heckled us to move faster- supposedly in jest and occasionally in lighthearted banter but we didn’t think it was funny. And since it was in jest, we may toss back “Gary, aren’t you supposed to be in your office jacking off again?” Sometimes he’d warn us to knock it off- other times he’d laugh at one of our retorts. Either way, the ship was not running smoothly and the job sucked on his watch.
The contrast is clear: John was a pig- committed and dedicated. Gary was a chicken- involved and invested. John was right there in the game with you- willing and able to do whatever had to be done to help you meet the moment. Gary was purely rear-echelon management. Unwilling to get his hands dirty or to connect to the shared goals through sweat equity. John was a servant leader and Gary was in the position of a leader enjoying the spoils. And it showed up in a myriad of ways I’ll sum up like this: John got a lot more out of me than I had any inclination to give a job like that. Gary got what was required and nothing more.
They both seemed like old men to me at the time but both guys were only in their mid-30’s so they were still developing professionally. But even in youth, we are still fully accountable for our actions across the board. Their work effected the lives of other people and that is enough apply a full-court press on evaluating their performance. The odd thing is that John wound up getting fired by Steak & Ale and Gary got a big promotion- and barely more than a year later the entire corporation went belly-up and shuttered all of those nice restaurants. Poor vision and values from top leadership was to blame.
But life will show and prove the realities people often miss: John wound up moving back home to suburban Chicago and started a transportation company that I heard became quite successful. As for Gary, I was out one night having drinks at an Atlanta restaurant and I heard that voice behind me- more than 20 years later, he was still hectoring and heckling a crew in a restaurant. I recognized the voice and the face immediately but I didn’t bother to approach and engage him to show him the distance I had traveled over the years. I just went back to my drink and my conversation and realized something I hadn’t considered in all this time- maybe Gary was a pig after all, just a different kind than John.