Tribe Culture Change | What Greek waiters teach you about strong leadership
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06 May What Greek waiters teach you about strong leadership

Despite the best efforts of hungry German holidaymakers, the meat and cheese platter at our all-inclusive breakfast doesn’t diminish. The French too try their best to ascend the pastry mountain, yet pain au chocolats prevail; ever defiant, ever delicious. Even I do my bit for international relations – scoffing prunes and muesli in a feeble attempt to neutralise three bacon waffles, quietly bearing witness to the gastronomic symphony played out in the restaurant of our Cretan resort.

This isn’t the usual backdrop for a JOMC treatise on leadership I admit, but diligently orchestrating this overture of indulgence is an unsung hero worthy of admiration by any would-be leader. Conspicuous by his anonymity, yet crucial in his presence: the head waiter of our hotel is a splendid example of what it is to be a great, effective leader.
Waiter's hand holding a platter
Floating swiftly between tables, the maître d’ moves with a grace that defies his heavyset, gorilla-like posture. A tanned Greek gentleman of about fifty with darting, kindly eyes, this king of the culinary jungle withdraws a chair for a guest here, sets a table there and all the while gently supervises an industrious army of restaurant staff conducting small acts of hospitality, each of which makes their customers’ holiday a little more pleasant. The net effect is positive online reviews, tips and return visits in future: success in this industry.

And it’s his behaviour and how it contributes to success that’s of interest if you too aspire to motivate your staff. By keeping sight of the grand vision (to keep guests happy) yet exemplifying himself in everyday chores this man demonstrates to us how to operate as an effective leader.

Whichever industry you operate in, the parallels are striking. You no doubt interact with an army of staff who must operate harmoniously and who look to you (whether you realise it or not) for direction. And the net effect of your staff’s collective action also has a direct impact on your bottom line.

So here are three core behaviours I observed which you can mimic in your own role as a safety leader, or share with other managers, supervisors and champions within your organisation:

1. Lead by example

Every day I watched the head waiter put the finishing touches to a table or courteously greeting ravenous Russians en route to the vermicelli counter. So his staff sought to do the same bearing witness to his clear and unambiguous message: this is how we do things properly around here, and this is what I expect of you.

Actions really do speak louder than words, so demonstrate your cultural values by acting in the way you’d like other people to behave.

When you live and breathe these values, like looking out for one another on the job or speaking up about unsafe behaviour, the rest will follow. By that I mean success; that could mean concentrating on helping your staff feel happier, safer and more productive and letting cold, hard performance targets take care of themselves (instead of making them your sole source of motivation).

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty in the day-to-day functioning of your organisation either. A good leader is a visible leader so make time to get out of your office, get to know people and muck in with tasks.

2. Take pride in what you do at every level

With all respect to our head waiter friend, he was only one small cog in a much bigger machine of employees, hotel managers and resort executives. Yet that didn’t stop him clearly taking a pride in nurturing the staff who reported to him and handling customers with courtesy and discretion.

Leaders needn’t be at managerial or board level, as our maître d’ proves, they’re at every level: supervisors, strong personalities within teams or older, more experienced members of staff who younger staff look up to, even if they share the same rank.

Remind these leaders within your organisation of their responsibility for other people’s well-being, in fact encourage them to own it and come up with new ideas for inspiring one another.

3. Be firm but fair

When young Valentin, a fresh-faced, bean-pole of a waiter accidentally seated some diners at a soiled table he quickly learned a lesson he wouldn’t forget. Taken discreetly to one side by our maître d’, he reacquainted himself with a fellow Greek countryman’s infamous emotional disposition.

Yet, when a different waiter proactively directed a large French group to a table more conducive to the chaos of familial dining, she earned an appreciative nod from her respectful boss, who watched approvingly from a distant corner of the restaurant.

In a just culture there are consequences for both bad and good behaviour and, as any parent will know, this discipline is administered with rigorous consistency. Good leaders make an effort to approach fellow human beings with a constructive attitude, dealing out praise and reproach for desirable and undesirable behaviours respectively, in an even-handed manner.

What Yorkshiremen teach you about not tipping

If a renewed sense of relaxation and contentment, and assurances of repeat custom is a true measure of success for the package holiday industry, then surely Greek hospitality has succeeded on all counts in this instance. Plus here I am writing about my experience, effectively doing Iberostar’s marketing for them of my own free will.

It’s also worth noting that all the above happened in a country teetering on the brink of economic collapse, which you’d never have guessed from the professionalism shown by hotel staff, perhaps a pertinent reminder of the need for brave leaders in tough, uncertain times.

While my story undoubtedly glosses over the intricacies of worker’s conditions and rights in a country I wish I knew more about, I found it very hard to detect any fractures in the behaviour of the polite, productive staff who made my stay so pleasant. Yes, you could argue they were only nice because they sought lucrative tips from guests, but then in defence of my case I’m from Yorkshire – so me proffering a tip is rarer than a flying whippet in a flat cap.

I believe that the quiet, understated style of leadership the head waiter demonstrates, so often overlooked when it’s truly effective, came from a leader who genuinely cared about quality as much as he did about the well-being of his staff. And these are the very same priorities any self-respecting leader in any industry should aspire to uphold.

Tribe Culture Change