What Restaurant Leaders Have That You Don't— 5 Traits That Make Them Great

Greatness is not something to take lightly. In the world of restaurants it can be said that the majority only rise to the level of being good. In today’s food industry, the last thing you want to be is— just good. Being good is a death sentence in a highly competitive market. Why do so many restaurants close? Being average is a big part.

The other reason is lack of leadership. As the market reaches a breaking point of saturation we have hired and promoted people into management roles that neither have the training or the temperament to be leaders. Our industry is at a crossroads and the solution is for people to step up and take the wheel of leadership into their hands and drive!

When you study restaurant leadership you start to see there are common traits that great leaders have. You might have these traits or maybe not. The lack of leadership around would point to the latter. Not to worry, it’s never too late to adapt and learn. Actually that is the best place to start!


The five traits all great leaders have, are:

1. Adaptability

The greatest trait of the human race is the ability to adapt. It is what brought us out of primitive world and into the modern one we currently live in. Adapting is natural, yet many seem to go against it. We seek comfort and routine. For a restaurant leader becoming comfortable is like a frog sitting in a room temperature pot of water on a stove that has the heat turned up slowly. The frog gets comfortable, it never realizes the danger until it’s too late and they become frog soup.

Great leaders stretch themselves first and then their team to become better. To not reach your potential is the biggest waste there is. Leadership is about developing and playing to your natural strengths (yes, everyone has natural strengths). Great leaders understand theirs and then position their team around them to accent and enhance those strengths.

2. Kaizen

After World War II, Japan was coming back from the devastation of their collapsed economy. An American named Dr. Deming came to their assistance in helping get the country going again. He introduced a concept of constant and never ending improvement into the work force. That concept is known to the Japanese as Kaizen.

The word has become a part of their culture and is contributed to their rise back to economic stability. The Japanese technology and automotive industries in particle used the philosophy of Kaizen to dominate world markets. Great leaders harness the same mindset to constantly look for small improvements to their team, systems, and strategy to stay ahead of the market. There are people who follow trends and those that create trends. Incorporating Kaizen into your restaurant’s culture is the best way to avoid complacency and mediocrity. Nothing good comes from being complacent.

3. Communication

When you look at the heart of the problems, the drama, and the chaos that seems to infect our industry you don’t have to see much farther than communication issues. Great leaders always go out of their way to communicate to their team and their guests. Implied expectations are the downfall of most managers.

Does that mean great leaders repeat themselves over and over? Yes. Leadership requires constant, clear, and honest communication with those you serve in the position you hold.

4. Personal Accountability

It’s hard to hold other people accountable if you cannot hold yourself accountable. Great leaders truly understand that culture is the result of modeled behavior—their behavior. People are great mimics and being the way we are wired we tend to do like others. Collective consciousness, groupthink, and the hive mindset are examples of how we model the behaviors of others in our work and those of our peers. Your team will imitate the behavior they see you do.

If you want to be a great leader it all starts with your accountability for your own actions. Say you will do something and don’t follow through? Your team remembers that. You say being punctual is important, yet you stroll in late pretty much everyday? Perhaps being on time is not as important as you say it is?

Great leaders always hold themselves to higher standards than they do for others. You are either a lesson or a warning to your team. The results you get depend on your actions and not just the words you say. Talk is truly cheap.

5. OAD - Obsessive Attention to Detail

To reach the level of becoming outstanding (which only 5 percent ever will). You must sweat the small stuff. Obsession gets a bad reputation as something dark. Not necessarily. Properly channeled, being obsessed is like a light being turned into a laser.

You want to use this power to reach a higher level of development and that requires you to become OAD. Great leaders all have an Obsessive Attention to Details. They nurture a high sense of total situational awareness about what is going on throughout their brand. “There is a water glass missing on table four.” “The door to the private dining room has a scuff mark at the bottom.” “The hostess (Sarah) seems preoccupied by something and is not her normal cheerful self.”

These little details all add up when stacked together to create an outstanding guest experience. Being OAD takes diligence and a constant scanning of the environment to ensure everything is how it must be. Standards are created to keep everyone dialed in for consistent results. Great leaders notice any variance from the brand standards and they speak up immediately to get the team back on track.

To rise to the top of the industry is not very complicated because so many restaurants perform at the average level. It does not take much to move past them. Staying at the top is a different story. That is more a question of your character and your ability to model these 5 traits that all outstanding leaders have in common.

By Donald Burns, Industry Expert