I am a concerned spectator at a time when everything seems to be in question and every one of us lives on the edge. We fear, we adjust, we cope, and then there comes a time when our coping mechanism comes into real question. This is when leadership is most needed.

Leadership is always important, but seems to be in critical need when we are in time of crisis. This is when people turn to either those with the title or those with a history of leadership. Leadership, real leadership comes from four actions:

* What we hear

* What we learn

* What we say

* What we do

The issue of proximity comes into play, because it is difficult, if not impossible to lead in situations or lead people when a person has not walked in those shoes, does not know the people in need of leadership, or has not felt their desperation. It is not possible to truly lead those with whom you can’t relate. This is true of any situation, individual, or group. In situations where this proximity is not possible then a person with the title of leadership must engage people who can relate and then hear, learn, speak, and act in a manner that respects the knowledge of others.

This is true of leaders of companies, organizations, geographic areas, communities, or populations. It is true of mayors, governors, Congressional members, presidents, law enforcement, and judges, just as it is of those in the clergy, and the classroom. Proximity and history are important when it comes to leadership with positive results.


– Who are “leaders” listening to? Are they listening to people with the background to know, with insight that is based on experience, or with the talent to find solutions? If not, what are leaders basing their decisions on? Doesn’t it make sense to listen (not just hear) to those individuals in a position to understand what is before them?


– Effective leaders convert listening to learning and invest the time to build a level of understanding that factors in proximity and relies on experience and facts. When this is done then decision-making will more likely result in effective outcomes.


– Effective leaders coach their words and base them on what they have learned – backed up with facts and input from those “experts” that they have effectively listened to. WORDS ARE POWERFUL – WORDS MATTER.


–           Finally, effective leaders take actions that are calculated, inclusive of expert understanding, and based on collaboration and strategic thought. There is never a guarantee for success, but this process is far more likely to reach that end result while earning respect and support.

At this critical time in our lifecycle (on the macro scale) we crave effective leadership in all areas. We look for leadership to guide us through this health crisis, we look for leadership to keep our priorities in line, crave leadership to help us build a strategy to work through a deep economic crisis and build confidence in that strategy, seek leadership to help our businesses survive and thrive again, pray for leadership to bring our country through a time of hate, anger, and despair; and seek leadership to bring our communities and nation back to a time of integrity and strength.

On the micro level, let’s look at the restaurant industry, an industry that is truly in a crisis situation. We are all aware, at some level that this is an immensely important industry, and at the same time – a very fragile industry. Unless a leader has “proximity” then he or she cannot truly understand the level of fragility and despair. We hear of major restaurant companies that struggle, but pay far less attention to the small business, the independent restaurant that represents the largest segment of the industry and the most fragile. If these operators are unable to recover from the worst health and economic challenge in our lifetimes, then the future of the restaurant industry is truly in jeopardy. Unless our leaders have proximity or build proximity into their decisions, then it is very likely that those mom and pop operators will fall. It is that simple. That local café or diner that has been part of your quality of life for years is in jeopardy. That local pizzeria that makes the best pie around is in jeopardy. That chef owned fine dining restaurant is in jeopardy. That world-famous bar-b-que joint that has been around for generations is in jeopardy. And that coffee shop where you greet your favorite barista on the way to work or use their tables as a temporary office to support you on-line business is in jeopardy.

Unlike that corporate restaurant firm with dozens or hundreds of outlets offering consistent product and service, your independent operation does not have the advantage of a marketing department, human resource officer, significant lines of credit with a bank, or leverage with vendors to gain better pricing through volume. Those chains are far more likely to gather their collective minds to find a way out of the storm and survive a period of business downturn. That independent operator measures their ability to survive in terms of a few weeks without sufficient business revenue.

Here is the reality: PPP loans that turn into grants don’t work for most independents when the conditions associated with that loan to grant remain inflexible. Allowing those operators to open with a restriction of 25% or 50% capacity does not help a business that depends on filling their seats and turning tables once or twice on a weekend night. It doesn’t help those restaurants if their bar operation is unable to accommodate revelers who seek to mingle with friends and buy a few rounds. It doesn’t help those independents when customers remain fearful of being in an environment where people cluster. It doesn’t help those independents when there are no clear answers to the questions above.

When the President’s Council for economic recovery only includes CEO’s from major restaurant chains and a few very high-end operations and shuns representation from mom and pop restaurants and shops – then any solution found will avoid listening to, learning from, speaking to, and acting upon a base of knowledge that really reflects the restaurant industry in America.

Where are the knowledgeable leaders who share proximity with the operators most clearly impacted by decisions that are supposedly designed to help restaurants recover? Where are the knowledge leaders who understand that this is an industry of diverse individuals who are on the lower end of the pay spectrum, and who try to get by without baseline benefits? Where are the knowledgeable leaders that understand the cliff that these restaurants live on without the benefits of help that exist within those restaurant chains and high-end operations that may be more flush with cash?

The best ideas for these independent operators cannot come from an assumption that throwing a bit of money their way and simply encouraging them to find their own solutions is enough. Leaders need to understand that the majority of these independent operators are good at two things: making consistently good food, and providing real service for guests that they work hard at knowing and caring for. They are not marketing experts, social media aficionados, financial planners, systems analysts, physical plant designers, or strategic planners. They are good at what they do and need real help with everything else. Remember – they are not responsible for this crisis – they are living with the necessary decisions that others made to protect public health.

How about boosting the breadth of assistance that the SBA offers to include building recovery strategies for small restaurants? How about financially supporting the SBA to recruit hundreds or thousands of regional restaurant/business consultants to roll up their sleeves and work on site with independents on recovery plans? Why not invest government spending in aligning small restaurants with culinary and business schools to provide additional training leading to recovery action? Why not subsidize local banks to cover some of their concerns about lending money to community restaurants in need? Most small restaurants know that a meeting with their bank to seek a larger line of credit or low interest loan to make physical changes to their operation in an effort to maximize sales while supporting social distancing will lead to a “sorry we can’t do that” response. This is where these independents need help. These are the type of solutions that can come from leadership that relies on proximity, listening, learning, speaking the truth, and acting accordingly.

Restaurants need real help and they need it now! If these restaurants fail so too will our economy. As the second largest employer of people in the U.S. – the restaurant industry (mostly independent operators) needs real help, not just a handout.   These are proud people who have given everything they have to the businesses that they operate. These restaurants are their dream, their life, their purpose and we should all be conscious of how much they mean to the communities where they hang a sign that reflects this.

Where is the leadership?

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

*PHOTO:  The proud Mirror Lake Inn Culinary Team 2006

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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