5 Practical Leadership Lessons From An Unlikely Place

Leadership is talked about as if it is the holy grail of professional life. Everyone wants to define it, become it, associate themselves with it. We have a tendency to grab on to buzz words like this and raise them to a level of reverence that actually extends beyond their value in day to day life. And so the divide between the theory and practice widens.

Early in my career I was fortunate to learn about leadership from a female boss who never uttered the word. In fact, I’m not sure she realized she was teaching me anything, and to be fair, at the time I may not have realized it either. But looking back I can tell you that she stands out among all the managers I’ve ever had, male and female.

Kathy was the banquet manager at a golf course where I got a waitress job to earn extra money during the summer. At first glance she was tough, out spoken, and no-nonsense. Over time I came to appreciate her demeanor. She had reasonable expectations and held everyone to the same standards, including herself.

At the height of a busy service, Kathy could be found clearing dishes and hauling them into the kitchen. Although she was at least 20 years older than the rest of the staff, she could lift more, move faster, and work longer than several people on her crew.

It was not unusual for Kathy to come into the kitchen and talk with the staff about a difficult customer. We could always bring our own concerns to her, as well. When someone stood out as being real trouble, Kathy would take that table and warn the rest of us to steer clear. She never threw her young waitresses to wolves. (You’d be surprised at some of the wolves who come off the golf course at the end of a long day of drinking with their buddies.)

When you worked for Kathy, you worked hard. She recognized that we were not there because we love food and beverage so much as we were all trying to earn money. When she made the schedule for each event, she kept the crew as small as possible so we would each get a larger share of the tip. She explained to me once that she would rather work hard for the whole shift and earn more money, and she assumed we all felt the same way.

Kathy was also good at weeding out the loafers. She would not stand for anyone not pulling their weight because it was unfair to the rest of us. This became a sticky situation when the owner’s daughter showed up to work. After a couple parties, we could all tell that she was not much of a worker. Kathy leveraged her friendship with the owner to eliminate the problem and keep the morale of her team intact.

If you’ve ever worked in food service, you know there is typically a divide between the service staff and the kitchen crew. A lot of conflict arises from the fact that the chef thinks everyone works for him and the dining room manager believe he is the one running the place. Kathy managed to maintain a comfortable rapport with the kitchen staff, including the chef. When small conflicts arose, she always stepped in to smooth them out immediately.

I’m quite sure Kathy graduated from high school but never went to college. She certainly didn’t attend business school or any management training courses. It is hard to discern how much of her leadership ability was innate and what portion she figured out on her own. When I worked for her, Kathy had been waitressing for many years in a couple local restaurants, but the management gig was fairly new to her.

After a couple summers of working for Kathy I moved on. My day job got better, I was promoted with a raise and didn’t have to work nights and weekend, as well. (Actually, I started devoting my energy on nights and weekends to my primary job, but that is a whole different story.) Years later, I realized Kathy had inadvertently taught me some things about leadership.

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  1. Working along side your employees develops trust and camaraderie that will get you through the tough days. People are going to work harder for you when they see how hard you work.
  1. Taking the tough assignments now and then shows the team you care about them. They cannot do their best work for you if you let the customers beat them up. Letting them know that there are limits to what you expect them to deal with is a way of showing your compassion.
  1. Setting uniform standards and holding everyone accountable is an act of kindness. You may come across as difficult in the beginning, but staff will ultimately appreciate your strictness. No one likes to work for a boss who lets some people slide, especially those who do not think they fall into the favored status category.
  1. Maintaining working relationships with everyone in the organization is important. Focusing only on the people who report to you is short-sighted. If you are respected and perceived as neutral, you will be able to step in and help resolve conflicts easily.
  1. Resolve conflicts quickly. Strive to maintain a smooth working environment at all times, between team members, with other departments, and among employees and customers. This relationship maintenance requires regular communication. You always want to be on comfortable speaking terms with everyone.[/message][su_spacer]

After just one season, I realized I would follow Kathy anywhere, and I wished she would move out into corporate America. I wanted her to recommend me for a job at the restaurant where she worked in the winter. She told me she would like working with me anywhere, too, since I was smart and worked hard, and we could joke around and have fun.

Ultimately, Kathy confided to me that she did this type of work because it was all she could do, and she encouraged me to take advantage of my abilities to keep growing professionally, even though it took me off her team and eventually away from that small town.


Christine Andola
Christine Andola
Christine has mastered the art of human connection working for more than 30 years in the communication and marketing field. Communication, whether it is with employees and new recruits or potential customers and your existing client base, is all about the people. Christine brings people together with their employees, with the members of their leadership teams, and with their customers and clients. Her customer service perspective builds long-term relationships with clients and helps clients develop connections with their target audience. Christine is also a highly successful copywriter with experience developing copy and brand voice for companies across a wide array of industries. At heart, Christine is a native New Yorker who has traveled the entire length of the Erie Canal by boat and navigated both the St. Lawrence and the Hudson rivers.

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  1. Christine: I have always found it interesting that when people speak of leaders and leadership they are inevitably talking about the top management. I have found that the leadership practiced daily well down the ranks are really what makes the business work. It is the supervisor, or in many cases just a line worker that works next to you.

    • You are exactly right, Ken. We forget that management and leadership are not synonymous. Funny how everyone is in a hurry to point out a manager who has no leadership qualities, but we often over look the subordinate employee who is a great leader. I strive to show my clients how to recognize and reward leadership throughout their organizations.