Leadership is adaptive and although someone may be a leader in one situation, they may not be in another (Northouse, 2016). Heifetz, a forerunner in adaptive leadership and who wrote The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, believes that leadership is “influencing change that builds and enables the capacity of individuals and organizations to thrive” (Wolinski, 2010). Leadership is not a “one size fits all” theory and what makes a good leader is situational (PSU, 2019). For example, those who are good leaders in a company may not be as effective if the goals of the company change. Furthermore, the system the leader has in place currently may not be working and needs to adapt to fit the current needs.
I work at a high-volume, stressful Japanese restaurant, which we will call OM. I am now 22 but I started there as a busser and host when I was 16. It was one of my first jobs and I was extremely nervous but I knew I had a good work ethic. The first person I met at OM was the general manager, Dave. From my first shift, I could see Dave was an authoritarian leader, callous and strict. He emphasized moving quickly and efficiently, never taking breaks. “There is always something to do,” he’d say. In hindsight, he was not wrong but stopping to get water mid-shift is necessary. Working for Dave was very hard at first; it was as if he never smiled. Turn over was extremely high and I originally blamed how high volume and quick paced the restaurant was – it was tough work. Servers, bussers, hosts, and kitchen staff were quitting almost weekly and it was impossible to establish a system that works or form relationships with co-workers. The owners started to blame Dave for the being constantly short-staffed and all the managerial complaints they were receiving. It must have occurred to Dave that his leadership style was not working and it was time to adapt.
Right around this time, I left for Penn State in 2014 after spending two years at OM with Dave as a manager. In September of last year I returned as a server to OM. I was surprised to see three coworkers who I worked with before I left still there – four years later. I thought to myself, our turnover used to be weeks or months and now it is years, but how? When I saw Dave’s new leadership style, I understood why. Dave was way more relaxed now but employees knew not to over step their boundaries. Dave used to make staff do everything themselves even if they needed help, “figure it out,” he’d tell us.
Now, Dave actively helps us during the shifts such as getting soups and salads, dropping off bar drinks to the tables, and bussing tables. His new leadership style helps the restaurant run smoother than ever before. He also became approachable, you could go to him with any request or conflict and he was there to help. He also made a significant effort to form relationships and recognize customers. Now, every night we write down VIPs who visited the restaurant and at the end of the year, reward their loyalty with gift cards. Plus, the customers love feeling special and valued.
According to Wolinksi, the three steps of adaptive leadership are preserving elements that are necessary, removing those that are not, and creating new ones to help the organization succeed (Wolinski, 2010). In Dave’s case, he kept what was working such as his expectations from employees, removed his authoritarian policies, and created a more flexible and open work environment. He adapted his leadership style to fit the needs of the restaurant and employees and became a superior leader. When I first started, the longest employed staff member had been there for a year, now it is five. There are also four employees, including myself, who returned to work for him again.
Northouse, Peter. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. Sage publications. 7th Edition.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2019). PSYCH 485 Lesson 1: Looking at Leadership through Many Lenses. Retrieved from https: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1972967/modules/items/25704818
Wolinski, S. (2010, July 07). Adaptive Leadership. Retrieved from https://managementhelp.org/blogs/leadership/2010/07/07/adaptive-leadership/