What makes a leader?

We’ve found the real deals tend to share certain traits. Here’s our checklist.
Brian Niccol
Photograph of Brian Niccol by Christina Gandolfo

We’re petitioning our parent company to invest in one of those mixed martial arts octagons so we stop knocking over furniture in our deliberations over who should be our Restaurant Leader of the Year. We’re not talking about a tempered discussion waged over tea and crumpets, pinkies properly bent as we address one another as sir or madam. And we have no comment on the rumors that HBO wants to broadcast the next selection as a pay-per-view event. 

Spirits tend to run high because we take the selection very seriously. Anyone who’s been in the business knows that leadership skills don’t always accrue to an individual who’s soared to prominence on the strength of an idea or a sheer drive to succeed. We once covered a CEO who had a liquor store-style security door installed at his office so any visitors had to be buzzed in, something he said was necessary because of frayed relations with the staff. We’ve also heard reports of physical confrontations erupting at staff meetings, or subordinates being humiliated before their peers by a bully with a CEO title. Success and leadership aren’t always synonymous.

In the six years we’ve been spotlighting the industry’s standout true leaders, starting with Union Square Hospitality Group and Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer, we’ve hammered out objective criteria to tamp down emotions during our selection debates. But you can still hear a few cries of, “Indoor voices, people!”

I’ve had the privilege of researching and writing the profiles of our six annual winners, which usually involves interviews with the honoree’s direct reports as well as acquaintances from outside their companies. In the process, four common traits have emerged as tell-tale attributes of a restaurant leader worthy of being called the industry’s best.

They’re family people. That sounds syrupy, but it’s undeniably true. More than one interview has been rescheduled because it conflicted with a school vacation the subject had promised to spend with the spouse and kids. This year’s winner, Chipotle’s Brian Niccol, still takes his turn in his children’s school carpool. Their offices are more likely to sport pictures of family elephant rides than an MBA diploma. It’s not that they’ve mastered a balance between career and family (a daughter told us her father had three children: her, her brother and the business), but there’s no doubt their role as parent trumps their day job as CEO.

They’re considerate. Sorry, saccharine haters, but our winners have shown a kindness and appreciation toward everyone during our considerable time with them that isn’t always a given with a business chief. Outside of our leaders of the year, we’ve witnessed plenty of C-level tantrums during office visits. It’s noticeable among our picks that they request things of their staff instead of barking orders. Trailing 2019 honoree Greg Creed through Yum Brands’ headquarters took about three times longer than necessary because he had to share at least a few minutes of personal chatter with his floormates, at all levels. The first thing Niccol did in arriving at a Chipotle unit for our interview was say hello to the kitchen staff.  We’ve not seen the high-handedness that’s easy to spot in others.

They’re casually dressed. We’re not sure how their preference for jeans or other comfy garb factors into their leadership acumen, but it’s definitely a common attribute of our winners. Our speculation is that they realize discomfort isn’t a necessary ingredient for setting a mission and mustering enthusiasm for realizing it. Plus, a fancy suit can be a subtle message to subordinates that they and the boss come from different sensibilities.

They’re listeners. A pitfall for any interviewer is talking instead of asking. That challenge is ratcheted up with our winners because of their curiosity and adeptness at eliciting information. They also have the gift of making any imparted information seem as important as anything they’ve ever heard, and subsequent conversations show they’re sponges on two legs. It’s also evident in the smallest give and take with office colleagues. There always seems to be more receiving than broadcasting.

For a list of our criteria or to nominate a candidate, email me at promeo@winsightmedia.com.

Learn more about Brian Niccol, RB's 2020 Restaurant Leader of the Year.

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