Stuck in a Leadership Rut? Here's How to Pull Yourself Out

What would we do without metaphors? Image: Pavel_Korr / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Here you are, running your bar, nightclub or restaurant. A leader, just living the dream... Right? Maybe it’s not the dream you had. Perhaps some days it seems like a real nightmare that you can’t wake up from.

What happened? How did you come to this? It’s quite simple.

You hit an obstacle you didn’t know how to navigate, you tried using the skills you had to overcome it, and when that didn’t work…you stopped. You threw up your hands and gave the universal signal that you’d had enough by saying these two fate-sealing words: “Screw this.” (Or something graphic along that line.) It’s tough being a leader and if anyone said it was easy they probably tried to get you into their multilevel marketing scam, too.

Leadership isn’t easy. In fact, it’s a pain in the ass getting people to do things that most of the time they don’t want to do. You try to motivate them. You encourage them. You say things like “nice job” or “way to go.” Still, they just seem to fall back into old habits and routines as soon as you stop watching them.

You scream up to the heavens for a break. You have bought so many books on becoming a leader that they pile up on your coffee table at home because you’ve read only the first chapter of each one. You might even start going to a medicine man for a magic talisman.

When things are not going your way, you can get desperate. When desperation doesn’t work, you get angry. When anger doesn’t work, you give up.

And now here you are, beaten down and questioning if you should’ve listened to your mother and gone to medical school. Yeah, it’s a bitch when you seem to lose your leadership mojo. Let’s get you out of this depressing funk you’re in and get that magic back!

Sometimes the tactics that got you to the point where you are now aren’t the same tactics that are going to carry you across the “leadership gap.” Now, before you quip and say you don’t have a leadership gap, let me assure you that every leader has one. In fact, the denial of having a gap in your leadership skills is the first one!

That edgy, aggressive tone and attitude and your sheer willpower can get you past the others and into a leadership spot fast. But those same traits will have your team turning on you faster than hungry rats on a block of cheese! Time to back off the attitude and switch to some decaf herbal tea.

Step One: It’s Not About You

This one is a hard one to swallow, particularly if the crowd around you has sung your praises and offered to write poems about your legendary leadership. The worst thing any leader can do is get a head (or ego) so big that others simply turn away and silently mouth the word “wow.”

Your hard work may have raised you to the top but it’s the team you build around you that will keep you there. People love to see a big, egocentric leader fall from the top—just look at any major news channel. They cover those stories faster than a wildfire can spread.

Read this: The 3 Big Problems with New Restaurant Managers

Yes, you can take pride in your accomplishments. Just don’t think you’re the Lone Ranger doing it all by yourself. Even he had a sidekick. Restaurants and bars thrive when the team shares in the struggles and they also get to share in the wins.

If you ask people to name someone they thought was an outstanding leader and what about that person made them outstanding, here’s what they would say: “They made me feel like I was important.”

Everyone has an innate need to feel appreciated. We all have a need to feel wanted and that we matter. Outstanding leaders go out of their way to make the team shine brighter than they do. If you’re struggling to get your team to follow you, it’s a simple fix: allow them to shine. Try a little less focus on yourself and a lot more on them.

Step Two: Let Go of Control (a Little)

Another big leadership gap is the ability to let go of the metaphorical steering wheel on which you have a death grip. The white knuckles I see on your hands tell me you run your restaurant like Attila the Hun ran his army.

Stop watching Game of Thrones and thinking everyone on your team is conspiring to hurt your brand. If you truly and 100 percent think someone who works for you is going to sabotage your organization, why in the world do you keep them on your payroll?

This gap is mostly seen when leaders go from one location to two or more. You just can’t be everywhere all the time. You can try but you’ll soon find yourself in another bad situation called burnout. You’re going to need to lighten up on the death grip and allow your team to carry the ball.

Read this: How to Build Your “A” Team in 90 Days!

That doesn’t mean letting go of the wheel completely. It means you need to set and standardize your expectations so they know—without question or hesitation—what they need to do and exactly how to do it. And this is where many leaders go astray: they don’t communicate clearly, consistently and constantly. You need to do all three.

Be clear. Don’t assume your employees know what you want. Spell out what’s required of them. Write it down, verbalize it, and demonstrate the proper way.

Be consistent. Maintain the same story and standards. Changing how you do things every other day may be your prerogative as a leader but it will drive your team bat-shit crazy. Most people like routine; they crave it.

Be constant. I know you told them once. Sadly, most people need quite a few reminders before something sinks in. Here, you just need be like a broken record and say things over and over and over and over and over and over until it becomes an unconscious new behavior (also known as a habit).

Step Three: You Gotta Believe 

Okay, you’ve toned down the ego and attitude. You’ve started to allow your team to take on more responsibilities. Now, it’s time for the hardest part—you gotta believe in your brand and your team.

Trust doesn’t come easy in our industry. If you’ve been around for any amount of time you surely have seen some shit that reality TV producers would love to film. Betrayal, stealing, fights and enough drama to fill a couple hundred books. It’s a wild ride at times. Along this journey you’ve been taken advantage of and deceived quite a few times. You carry those emotional scars inside and you’ve built a nice defense mechanism to cope: you don’t trust many people.

Those who have wronged you in the past say more about their own character than their actions will ever say about yours. Why are you dragging around the ghosts of the past? They’re valuable lessons but you only need to take what you’ve learned with you; leave behind the pain. Time to leave the negativity in the past where it belongs. 

People, for the most part, want to do a good job. They want responsibility (at least some). They want to take pride in what they do. When you don’t trust them and micromanage them to death you deny them the opportunity to grow. Lack of growth and appreciation are the two leading causes of turnover. They might say it’s because the place down the street offered them more money, but the truth is they felt you didn’t trust them and they were being suffocated slowly by your constant verbal berating.

Read this: Stop the Turnover Bleeding

If you don’t trust your team, you don’t have a team. Instead, you have a bunch of mercenaries that job hop to the highest bidder. If you don’t show them trust and loyalty first they will never return it. Now, you can take the stand that they need to earn those things, and if that’s your approach let me ask you one simple question: “How’s that working for you?” That’s what I thought—not very well.

Change your attitude first. When you do that and remain committed to the new path, you’ll see your team change too. How do you change a restaurant? It happens when the leader changes their attitude.

Watch Out for the Rut 

Everyone gets stuck in a rut through life. The difference between winners and losers is that winners realize they’re in a rut and take immediate action to get out. Losers stay down there, wallowing in the rut. They whine, kick and complain until that swallow rut has now become their grave. You see, what separates the two is only the depth.

Don’t allow your leadership rut to become your leadership grave. Believe me when I warn you that there are plenty of ambitious people just waiting to start shoveling dirt on you if you stay down too long. Don’t worry if they do because they’ll soon be stuck in the same leadership rut one day as well.

The leadership bell tolls for us all one time or another. You now have some awareness to change the situation when it arises…if you so choose.

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