Professional Comment

Covid-19: Probably the Greatest Test of Leadership in the Last 40 Years?

It’s doubtful that many across the industry believe it is going to be a measured return to strength for the hospitality sector.

Most know it is going to be extremely testing and the importance of great leadership is at all time high. We’ve seen examples of how important it is for leaders to be visible both to staff and customers at this time and also the difference that makes. Yet this kind of challenge often brings out the best in people (as we have seen in hospitality with many firms supporting the wider cause). The challenge ahead may also force leaders to open up doors to new talent, to be braver, take more risks and to continue to be more vocal. What tests do leaders now face and what might the impact be in the future?

The good news is the majority will be ready to test their skills against the challenge ahead. It is the type of challenge that often makes many leaders excel and open doors to new talent. Companies need to rediscover how they can once again free up talent, to be brave, to be vocal and to take the risk.

There is very little evidence to support the notion that appointing good young talent into leadership roles is more risky than appointing experienced, older people. There is a lot of evidence that does suggest that experience and competence can sometimes be detrimental. It is natural that experienced leadership becomes defensive, conservative and protective in approach. Sometimes leadership needs a touch of the naïve as it can make a major difference.

Leadership is not a privilege just for the experienced

There will be few leaders across the country that had been in roles for a good length of tenure, who will regret either having been a leader or the lessons that they will have learned during their journey. They will possess scars, often deep ones. They will have endured some dark moments and at times, the role will have felt highly painful and pointless. However, they will look at their tenure with some pride. They will feel that they were privileged to have had the opportunity to make a difference regardless of whether they may have failed or if they have been lauded for their success. We all know that success and failure are remarkably close together. It is all about a matter of small margins and it is the small margins that ultimately make the difference.

Sir Clive Woodward (113), the former England Rugby Union Coach who led England to glory at the Rugby World Cup of 2003, often talked about the small margins that determine success. He would note that the difference between a great team and a good team, who would win nothing, was less than 2%. He would focus his players on improving 1% at a time and if they could improve by 10%, the chances are that they would be world-class players. The more world-class players a team possessed, the better the odds. The more confidence the players possessed, the more leaders emerged across the team and the stronger the whole unit became. It was a simple and yet highly effective philosophy.

The ability to absorb pressure

So much of success in leadership is about the mental ability of a person to absorb pressure, be calm and find solutions. It does take time to learn and few are able to achieve it; for it does need, within each person, a motivating factor to ensure that the leader accepts the bad moments and learns so that they can improve.

It is also no surprise that so many dyslexics found their home in Hospitality. For a long period of time, Hospitality has been an industry that been perceived as almost a second-class profession. Just like many dyslexics, the industry has so often been slighted, felt inferior to others and just ploughed on. Only today is it beginning to realise the real scale and scope of its potential.

Hospitality today, is viewed by many professionals across all the great disciplines as one of the most exciting industry sectors. Hotels, restaurants, stadia catering, foodservice and bars are seen to be exciting environments – businesses that many venture capitalists and investors today want to invest in. It used to be viewed as a highly risky investment. Today, there is the utmost respect for the business leadership that the sector has displayed over the last three decades.

More to come

However, there is more to come. Hospitality can be a leading force in society, in communities, in those that it employs and it can be a role model for other industries to follow. Hospitality has travelled a long and hard road but today it is a truly world-class Industry with world-class talent in a whole range of disciplines from management to the culinary: from reception to housekeeping; from restaurants to bars to major events. There is an exciting new era awaiting to see the Industry take the small leap up to the next level.

This is not to hide from the number of challenges that the industry does still face. There is a need for a stronger relationship between Industry and education beyond the top hotel schools, which have long dominated the landscape. A world-class Industry needs a world-class structure and system to support the development of the young. It needs to be progressive and to find a stronger voice. For this it needs investment. Education needs to make the argument and industry need to work far more closely in support.
So the challenge that lies ahead is a mix of setting a vision, an objective that others feel that they want to follow – for it must be their choice; where they will want to improve their skills and will work hard to improve by those small 1% margins: and in setting an environment where people feel safe and that they can trust in leadership.

It is not an easy mission but it is one that is worth the fight to try and achieve.