Lessons in Leadership from the Jewish Deli

I have been on a trip to spend time with my family in South Florida. It has been a while since I have been able to visit due to COVID. There are a few things that I expect from any trip there:  at least one breakfast of matzoh brei (*for those of you who are less familiar with Jewish cuisine, I’ll explain; our version is like a cracker French toast), a midday movie, bingo at the recreation center, and at least one meal with six to ten relatives at an extremely popular deli. 

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I think the senior citizens of Palm Beach County have reached consensus on the deli they all like. Well maybe there is not total consensus, but nonetheless some delis are quite popular. Each time we go to this one particular deli, there are dozens of people waiting outside with an average age in the 70s and a 50:50 split between those who are fully mobile and those reliant on walkers or canes. 

It is not a patient group of diners. 

They are all eager to quickly be served a range of overstuffed deli sandwiches with a variety of pickles and other traditional dishes. Patrons are served by a wait staff that also looks like they have been doing this work with this demanding crowd for decades.

However, what grabs my attention each time is the hostess who manages the constant flow of hungry patrons to determine the order in which diners are seated. It is pretty frequent that someone comes along angling to jump the list and get seated more quickly. Typically, their request revolves around their medical situation, a “recent hip replacement” is the most mentioned offender, but there are a number of other ailments and operations mentioned too.

This is of course not the first day, year, or even decade, for our hostess working the front of the house so she simply responds with something like, “as you walked through the crowd waiting for a seat in the restaurant, and even looking around you now you can see that your situation isn’t unusual given our clientele.” She says this with a bit of a tight-lipped smile and a withering glance. Whereby the patrons, realizing their failure, shuffle off feeling misunderstood and wronged. 

All the pushy diners think they are deserving of special treatment. Or they cannot see beyond the fact that they are hungry or just want their needs met immediately. They want their seats post haste, ignoring others in a similar state, and present a scenario where their expectations are to be met at the detriment of others who may have their own set of needs. 

Of course, for some weird reason this made me think of leadership. I have known a fair number of people who consider themselves to be leaders who frequently seek the juiciest bits for themselves. 

True leadership is about approaching the situation in a bigger way than this. 

Do not ask, ‘How can I get my pastrami on rye with fries well done and a Dr. Brown’s cream soda (my dad’s standing order) immediately?’

Instead, leadership is about opening your eyes beyond your appetite, beyond the needs of a tiny group and considering the challenge that a larger percentage of the patrons are facing. You aspire to produce a solution that might make things better for those struggling most, if not everyone. 

Perhaps you go around to others in the crowd and ask, “how long do you usually wait for a seat?” You might even follow-up by asking, “Does the wait time and lack of comfortable seating deter you from dining here?” 

Having gathered more information, perhaps you suggest to the owner or manager that the restaurant get more benches outside for people to sit on while they wait and add a covering for some shade. If they were hesitant due to cost, maybe you ask them if you could fundraise for it. Perhaps you suggest they tweak their reservation system. Perhaps you reach out to a local school to offer short plays or talent shows during the busiest times. (This seems like a less scalable solution, but there can be alternative approaches.) 

To be fair, a leader has to also choose their battles and determine which fights they are going to take on. If I decide to handle this deli situation, I may decide to ignore my frustration with who controls the tv stations at my gym’s treadmills and practice cleansing breaths instead.

The point is this: The goal of the leader is to be open to solving the problem with input from others to figure out what might help the broader community. It is not to selfishly figure out how you can get to the front of the pastrami line. 

Back to the order of leadership from least to most:

I want to improve my quick access to food or “I want my sandwich now”

I want to ensure that the pain point is reduced just for my group in getting food or “My group needs to eat quickly”

I want to consider a solution that would make life better for all who want to eat there or “I think we’ve got a bigger problem here, and if we solve it, we all would be better off”

And yes, the pastrami was indeed very good, even if I had to wait.

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