I recently participated in a professional development session in which we reflected upon leaders we’d had in the past—not only previous principals, but bosses we’d had in our earliest jobs, too.
I thought back, shuffling through the people I’ve learned with and from.
Rita was march-y—she marched around—march, march, march—and she barked at others to march around, too.
There was Amy, who was empathetic, patient, and courageous.
Carol was relentless. Intelligent. A motivator.
Dave was Presidential. When he made a suggestion, it was actually an order—albeit a very, very friendly order—and everyone jumped into line, lockstep. Dave always did the right thing.
Paradoxically, the one that inspired me the most was a leader who wouldn’t have been caught dead near a school. Steve was the general manager of a restaurant where I worked as a bartender for a handful of years after college.
Steve had a whole bunch of awful qualities. He was a chain smoker and ruthless drinker; he cursed like a trucker; and his personal life was a raging mess—evidenced by the piles of hard-looking ex-girlfriends who popped up at dramatic and inopportune moments. He couldn’t get along with his own bosses, and he had a hard time with patience and politeness. He came in most days looking ruffled and rumpled. He seemed to subsist on french fries, coffee, and shots of vodka. He was a mess in a lot of ways.
So it would be easy to assume he might have been the worst boss I’d ever had. Not so. In fact, I could argue that he was the very best. Because he inspired me— for no other reason than he loved his work and had enthusiasm that spread like a red-hot flame, making others fall in step with him to get the job done right.
Man, he loved his work. He was passionate about it. Nothing made him happier than a packed dining room of hungry customers. He loved the tonic-like music piping through the speakers; the sound of onions sizzling on a hot grill; the darkening night and unexpected headlights of a late-night bar crowd. He whooped and hollered his way through every shift, running on happy adrenalin. He bounced, Tigger-like, from the front of the restaurant to the back prep area, over to the bar, between the cooler, the grill, the dishwashing station. When things got really busy, he easily slid alongside the line cooks, chopping and sizzling with whirlwind hands; then, he’d waltz around schmoozing dining room customers and fixing complaints. He was hilarious, too. He could find the funny in any situation and whoop about it with the quick wit of a practiced comedian. His zany, untethered, caffeine-fueled leadership style put him firmly in charge of his crew of misfits—restaurant people are notoriously eclectic and often unstable—turning us into a big, thick, loyal, formidable army.
For a time, I thought I wanted to manage a restaurant like Steve did. He just did it so well. It really was a beautiful thing to watch. And he made it his life. His lifestyle. Because running a restaurant is a lifestyle. It’s exciting, fun, and changes with the moment, and it takes every single bit of energy one has to give.
But it’s also exhausting, unhealthy, and unsustainable.
Which is what drove me away, ultimately. Turns out I’m not well suited to world that really gets amped up after dark.
But the same things that drew me to consider a career running a restaurant are what eventually led me to school leadership. With restaurant management, as with school leadership, there is time, energy, effort, pain, difficult conversations, meeting after meeting, sleepless sights, and lots of anxiety. There’s fickle “customers,” and there’s the giddiness that comes when everything is working well—when everyone is satiated and full and enjoying the fruits of a job well done.
Not everyone can do this kind of work. It’s “people work,” which is complicated and fluid. Not everyone can lead people who are working with people. It’s messy. But it is also just about as fulfilling as it gets. As a school leader, at the end of a day, I often feel like Steve undoubtedly felt after a long shift at the restaurant: tired, happy, and pleased with how the day unfolded and my role in it. It’s a pretty good feeling.