Questioning Our Leaders: Learning Leadership From Behind the Bar

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What a Bar Can Teach Us About Leadership

Beacon Festival is a local event in Oxfordshire where 5,000 come along to enjoy music from the big stage & splinter stages, peruse the craft stalls, and enjoy a beer or 3. This is where I come in, helping to set up the bar and serving all weekend. What can we learn about leadership from working behind a bar?

Life at Beacon Festival

Let’s set the scene. Michael is part of the committee that spent the last 3 years making the 2 days happen. The festival has been running for 10 years, except for the last 2 due to the C-word, and now the committee organisers are back with a vengeance wanting to make the 10th year the very best. Michael’s job, and his sidekick, me – make the money. It’s where the festival either wins or loses, on the bar takings. So, the pressure’s on. This is no normal bar, the 3 feet of mahogany is replaced by a piece of MDF 1 metre wide and 20 metres in length, painted black, and the more you wipe it down the more you see the previous red colour as the black paints comes off.

Friday night, the tent is full of over 200 people, and then there are cheers and screams as the entire lighting dies. No one can see a thing. Rob, the older volunteer, who just likes to be anywhere near beer, has apparently tripped over a barrel and is now face down in the grass & mud. People have started to turn their phone torches on, so it now looks like a warehouse rave. Punters still want drinks but the 8 volunteers behind the bar can’t see their hands in front of their faces.

Plastic cups on the bar of a summer festival
Turn the lights off


Questioning Our Leaders

Michael has exited the tent like the Tasmanian Devil hunting for which generator of the 20 in the ‘marquee’ runs his lights. How should Michael have done it better? Yes, avoided the problem, but they’ll always be problems for a leader. Hoorah the lights are back. Twenty minutes later they go again. And then again. By now everyone’s a critic, alcohol-fuelled, ‘What you wanna do bruv is…<insert any ideas here from make the bar free to let me ‘ave a go at the power board thingy>’. What would you have done?

One of the bar staff is an engineer by trade. Her subconscious has been working on the problem since it started. She noticed a 4-bank plug extension being leaked on by a barrel. ‘Got it!’. She makes a makeshift glove out of something that electricity apparently doesn’t pass through and plugs it into another extension. ‘Sorted’, she calmly shares. What’s the lesson here that you can use for your team, as a leader? Are you aware of everyone’s strengths and are using them?

Nigel, an 18-year-old volunteer and his first time behind a bar. Serves 3 drunk women wearing rainbow hair wigs. Them, not he. Michael, whilst pouring a pint for his customer, says, ‘I would have carded them’, which means challenge their age. How often do you give feedback in the moment? Not once a year formal stuff, but the every day in the moment stuff. Not often enough would be my guess. It’s easy to question our leaders and their actions, but let’s start closer to home and what we could do better to lead and set an example.

This article on Questioning Our Leaders was written by Darren A. Smith for The Grocer.

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