Ansley GC’s Executive Chef Kevin Walker, CMC, says the keys to successful leadership, especially in times of crisis, are managing stress and hiding panic.
Earlier in my career, while I was retelling an incident that had happened just the weekend prior, an executive coach shared this quote with me: “Leadership is your ability to hide your panic from others.”
It’s was a typical Friday night at the club during Happy Hour—or was it Friday on the Green or maybe Weekend Wine Down? To be honest, I don’t remember what our weekly Friday night promotion was called. But I do remember dreading Friday as soon as Saturday rolled around.
Friday was a perfect night to be at the club. The bar was full, music was playing, doors were open to the patio, and everything seemed right with the world.
Everything but the back of the house.
Fridays meant we were stretched thin between parties, staff shortages, and the normal activities of the kitchen. It also meant everything that could go wrong did because I was unable to positively channel my fears and frustrations. I was also bad at hiding my panic. I can see now how my behavior manifested in my staff. I was blind to it then. I’m sure the lack of cooperation, rudeness, and stress level of my staff was evident to all members. But I was oblivious. I also blamed everything and everyone else.
It was my first Executive Chef position. I was learning how to be a leader and I was not doing a very good job. I could go from zero to idiot faster than a New York minute—and I usually did. As you can surmise, this Friday was no different than the countless ones that came before. The kitchen staff mirrored my angst and negativity. Service started off poorly and quickly became a complete mess.
To call it a circus would be disrespectful to the circus.
Years later, though better, I still work on consistently becoming the leader I want to be. Admittedly I fail from time to time, but luckily I fail less frequently now than I used to.
No matter the situation—whether it’s a busy Friday night, or you’re running out of potatoes three quarters of the way through a dish out for a wedding, or you’re dealing with conflicting personalities, or you’re navigating your way through the ever changing ups and downs of COVID-19—we, as leaders, must hide our panic from others. The staff, yours and mine alike, are looking to us to be the calm in the storm.
It’s easy to get lost in the in the trees and not see the forest. But we are to be the guiding light and to exhibit the strength that keeps everyone around us calm.
At Ansley GC, as we plan our reopening, our strategy has changed a half-dozen times in as many days. Not for lack of board and management leadership. Far from it, actually. It’s more because the playing field changes hourly. We are juggling a construction project that is stressful enough in the best of times. When you layer in the challenges we face because of COVID-19, wanting to take care of the staff and service the members and trying to be fiscally prudent, it can feel nearly impossible to hide my panic.
Yet, this is exactly what I need to do. My ability to successfully stay outwardly calm will be directly reflected in how my staff reacts and behaves. If I am calm, they are calm. This calmness will directly increase our probability of success in any future situation.
I believe my ability to hide panic directly correlates to my ability to positively relieve my own stress. I relieve stress through exercise—more specifically, cycling. Whether indoors on the trainer or on the road, nothing clears my head, relieves my angst, and gets me ready to fight another battle better than wrecking myself on my bike. My ability to stay calm is directly affected, both positively and negatively, by how much I exercise.
Another way is having a “bitch buddy.” This is someone you can share your frustrations with, and theirs with you, while knowing you are safe to do so. (This person should not be a subordinate or anyone in your department.)
Whatever your strategy, finding a way to help relief your stress is a helpful key to hiding your panic from others and being the type of leader your operation needs.
Chef Scott Craig at Myers Park Country Club in Charlotte, Va. and Chef Michael Matarazzo at Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville, Va. are two great examples of leaders I admire. They have mastered the art of staying calm and that mastery is directly reflected in how each of their teams are operating through this crisis. They are an inspiration to me as I try my best to lead my team in the same direction.