For several years (a lifetime ago), I tended bar in Madison, Wisconsin. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, but I worked with some of the best people I’ve known and learned some important lessons about life. Many of those lessons have to do with leadership. The tales you collect working in a bar are long and varied, but I recollect just a few below that helped forge what I know about leadership today.

  1. Sometimes you have to clean the poop out of the sink — Early one evening, a couple of new drinkers (recently turned 21) came into the bar. They ordered some drinks, played some pool, used the restroom, and promptly left. When I checked the restroom, I found that one of them had defecated in one of the sinks. Why would anyone do such a thing? I have no idea. People are weird. Just as I made the discovery, the bouncers arrived. I showed them what had happened, described the violators, and told them to keep an eye out for them. The bouncers then started rolling up their sleeves, getting ready to clean up the mess. I told them that I would clean it up because it happened on my watch. They didn’t argue much. Now this is tricky because as a leader you need to be able to delegate and let go of the operational stuff. Doing so creates capacity and allows you to focus on leading. However, as the leader, once in a while, you need to be the one who cleans the poop out of the sink. Getting your hands dirty and taking on the really hard stuff establishes you as a leader who is also part of the team, and someone to emulate. You earn respect, not demand it. That means doing the hard stuff. Those young men who left that little present in the restroom actually came back that same evening, by the way. But that’s a story for another time.
  2. It’s the ones you can’t seeing coming that you need to worry about — The funny thing about breaking up fights is that it’s usually really, really easy. A 200-pound, ostensibly enraged man lunging toward his adversary rarely provides much resistance. Why is this so, you ask. Because when people are adept at fighting—when they really want to do some damage—you don’t see them coming. Remember this as a leader. If someone is broadcasting how tough or intimidating they can be, they are likely full of shit. They will buckle with the breeze. Know what you’re talking about, stand your ground, and blowhards will crumble before you. However, there are people out there who will want to take you down, who are willing to do so, and who are fully capable of doing it. I recall a patron who I considered a decent fellow̉—charming demeanor, good tipper̉—smash a rocks glass in another man’s face. That’s the guy you need to be aware of, and it’s going to be your team who saves your ass.
  3. Wash the fruit — Health code inspectors never made sure that the outside of the lemons, limes, and oranges were washed properly. I guess because you don’t eat the peel. Whole fruit wedges do, however, get dropped into drinks where Lord only knows what kind of disgustingness could get washed off into the drinks. But why wash the fruit if no one’s checking? Because a leader doesn’t do the right thing because someone’s watching or to check it off a list. And here’s the other thing about doing the right thing: when you do, the rest of your team notices. It’s what I now call demonstrating the values of the organization. Washing the fruit sets the tone. It lets the team know what kind of place they’re working in and then they rise to that standard. Leaders have tremendous power in articulating values and it is incumbent upon leaders to apply those values every day in a way that is challenging and undeniable to the team.
  4. Risk madness now to make things right later — Weekend nights are a non-stop frenzy when you bartend. There is no time for a breather or pausing to reflect. That means a bump can send you and your team reeling. And a series of bumps can be disastrous. One night a glass broke in the ice bin. This is no small thing. In fact, for a bartender on a busy night, it’s the kind of thing nightmares are made of. I had two options. Option one was to close down the station for the remainder of the night, and keep the bartenders focused on helping the customers as best they could. This would have meant bartenders standing around taking turns at other stations and customers piling up, getting angry, and leaving. Option two was to close down the station temporarily while a team meticulously cleaned out the ice bin. And I mean meticulously. This would mean a bartender and a bouncer taken off essential duties for an indeterminate amount of time. Glasses would be piling up throughout the bar. Customers would grow increasingly impatient. The bartenders who were kept on serving drinks would get run raged. What if a fight broke out? A lot could go wrong very quickly. But I chose to clean out the bin. As a leader you have to take the risk that comes along with fixing the problem. Yes, you will likely take on additional burden while key resources focus on the fix, but the alternative is worse. The alternative is that the rest of your team can’t do the jobs they were hired to do, everyone is working with a dysfunctional system, and all your customers see is a bunch of nitwits standing around not doing their job.
  5. Leadership is a team sport and a long-game OR: It’s all fun and games until someone sprays mace into the ventilation system  — When you are on a great team, everyone is a leader. But when things get really bad—and they will—the team inevitably needs to look to one person for the answers. The night someone sprayed mace into the ventilation system was going great up until that point. Everyone was doing what they needed to be doing, having a great time, and taking charge. The mace crept up on us slowly. It was just an odd sensation at the back of our throats. Then the coughing started and kept growing until we realized something was very wrong. We got wet bar rags over everyone’s faces and ushered everyone out ASAP with just a few staying put to make sure the place didn’t get looted. There is no protocol for some things. You just have to figure it out on the fly. Yes, the people working there could have come up with solutions of their own, but there needed to be one person to call the shots because everyone needed to be on the same page. When that happens—when people are looking for someone to provide unified direction—it needs to be clear who that person is and that person damn well better be present. That works right when leadership is played as a long game. Meaning, a leader establishes herself as the go-to person early and often. When the mace hits the fan, your team needs to know instinctively where to look.
  6. Don’t hit the cash register — Frustrations can run high bartending. Drunk people are not always the kindest or most rational customers. There are also a lot of uncontrollable variables. Freezers break, tap lines get finicky, pool tables get jammed, air conditioning goes out, and so on. One night one of our tills kept jamming for no apparent reason. It started earlier in the night, but I could not figure out why it randomly refused to open. One thing after another kept me distracted from fixing it once and for all, and now, at the peak of Saturday night, as customers were screaming all around us, it seemed to jam for good. I lost my cool and gave that son-of-a-bitch a solid whack with the butt of my right hand. It bit back, opening up a massive gash at the base of my thumb. As you can imagine, an open wound in the service industry will not do, which meant I had to bench myself until I got the situation under control. Which in turn meant the rest of the team had to pick up my slack while I was out. All because I didn’t keep it together. A leader must keep a cool head. Succumbing to frustration will only make matters much worse for the very people who are depending on you. I still have the scar today to remind me of this lesson.
  7. Assemble the A-team — This one above all else. It is fundamental to leadership. Get your team right, and treat them right, or get out all together. And here’s what you look for in the right team: Aptitude, attitude, adaptability. Experience is nice, but what you really need in a solid team are people with a growth mindset, who switch to a new challenge on a dime, and laugh about it while it’s happening. The bar business is dirty, gross, annoying, difficult, dangerous, and exhausting. Yet, we laughed easily, would step in harm’s way to protect one-another without a second thought, and worked as a highly efficient team. That doesn’t mean people didn’t screw up or have personal problems. But you hire the right people and let them know how much you value them, and the unforeseeable is manageable. Loyalty and camaraderie flourishes when there is a common goal and a shared struggle. As a leader, it’s up to you to make this clear and rewarding to your team.

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