Sergeants and Generals

For those of you who do not know me personally, I have a confession to make.  I am a huge history nerd.  This means that The History Channel’s “America: The History of Us” is taking up a large portion on my DVR.  I was watching the episode on World War II the other day when a particular statement from a General caught my attention.  He talked about the reasons soldiers fight.  He said that beyond all other reasons soldiers almost universally fight for the guy in the foxhole with them.

As a server, I can relate to this.  When the entire restaurant goes down in the weeds, you don’t fight through it for the sake of corporation or their shareholders.  You fight through it for your coworkers. You fight through it for those people who are fighting with you.  After the fight it is a bond you share.  There are many former coworkers out there I don’t particularly like as people, but will always respect because of the battles we went through together.  I would lend them a hand when they need it, because I know I could count on them when I need it.

To take the military analogy further, there are two types of managers: Generals and Sergeants.  Generals send you into battle.  Sergeants lead you into battle.  You fight for Sergeants and you curse Generals under your breath the whole time.  Managers who fight with you and for you as Sergeants make you want to fight with and for them.  Managers who command as Generals will find a staff unconcerned with helping them win their battles.

It all comes down to one very simple principle:

Strong managers gain respect by their actions.  Weak managers demand respect because of their title.

With this in mind, here are three ways a manager can transition from a General to a Sergeant:

Get in the Battle: A manager who is on the floor running food and bussing tables will command the respect of their staff.  You cannot lead the troops from the host stand or the office.  If you don’t find it important enough to join in the battle, then your staff will feel their battle is not important to you.  This does not mean being a food runner during slow times.  It means helping out when the battle gets heated for your staff.  If you are not willing to help your staff when they need you, you can expect the same level of help in achieving your objectives.

Show You Care: Serving is different than most jobs.  Most jobs start with an agreement to pay a certain amount for a certain level of performance.  Servers agree to charge far less (sometimes less than minimum wage) with the understanding management will put them in a position to make far more in tips.  That is why servers take the job.  If you show your staff that you do not care about the amount of tips they make, you can not expect them to care about the parts of the job they are making minimum wage or less for.  When you show you care about them making more in tips, they will care more about the additional things you need them to do.

Be Willing to Apologize: Servers and managers are both experts at apologies to guests. Both generally stink at apologizing to each other.  Managers are forced to make judgment calls that can impact server’s income on a nearly shift-by-shift basis.  Even great managers get these calls wrong sometimes.  The reason they are great managers is because they are willing to own up to these mistakes.  Nearly all of these mistakes can be forgiven with a simple, “I made what I thought was the best call and I got it wrong.  I am sorry.”  This goes a long way in showing that you care.  This does not reduce your authority, but instead increases the respect for the decision.  Trying to stand behind and defend a decision that turned out poorly is a fool’s errand that shows you are more concerned with being in charge than being correct.

As a manager, a vast majority of your objectives depend on the effort and cooperation of your staff.  Having them fighting with you makes achieving most of these objectives far easier.  Managers who feel they must have an adversarial relationship with their staff will find little help in achieving their objectives.  This does not mean that the staff must love a manager who acts as a Sergeant.  Sergeants are not necessarily liked, but they are respected.  The troops respect the Sergeant though because they are in the battle with them and therefore are much more likely to fight for them.

Do you work for a Sergeant?  Any Generals out there want to tell the other side?  Any other suggestions from servers on what they appreciate in a manager?  Any former server turned manager who wants to share some insight?  The comment section is yours.  Share your thoughts with the world or at least the very small portion of the world reading this.

Tips²: Tips For Improving Your Tips, the new book from the author of The Manager’s Office, teaches the skills of exceptional servers that will increase customer satisfaction and dramatically improve restaurant sales.  This book is more than a server training manual.  It is the secret to teaching your staff to enjoy selling and give your guests the experience that will create raving fans.  To learn more about the book, visit  Use the coupon code “MANAGER” to save 20% at the checkout.


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About David Hayden

David Hayden is a restaurant marketing and training consultant based in Kansas City, MO. He writes a series of 9 blogs collectively known as The Hospitality Formula Network and is the author of "Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips" and "Building Your Brand With Facebook"

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  • yellowcat

    Currently, I work for a sergeant. He replaced a general who like to tell everyone how much they sucked and how he could do everything better than they could. Most of the staff quit so he got to try out that theory. It didn’t work out well.

  • Jessi

    Probably your best one yet!

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  • Robbed

    I feel I have to give you a little background before I get into my comment. I realize that I am posting months after the fact. I stumbled across your articles because I am always trying to learn from other people such as yourself in hopes of one day becoming a great leader. The process never ends. I feel if it does end then you have taken a step back. I am also on track to opening my very own restaurant. I believe that my team will be the success of “our” business. I say “our” because I think if the employee has a sense of ownership then they will take the success more personally in turn helping me create a better product. Better product (generally speaking) equates to a better bottom line equates to success.
    One of the greatest learning tools for leadership is the military. You take a very diverse group of individuals and put them in extreme situations together. For the most part there is no other job that demands so much from an individual. The point is this. If you can find a way to motivate individuals in those extreme situations you better believe that they will absolutely work in other industries that are not as dire.
    There are ways to make it work as a general that does not join the battle, but you can bet they are joining the battle (if they are successful) from an indirect stand point. They likely have a subordinate that is on the front lines with those sergeants. I don’t particularly agree with this process, but I have seen it work and work well. Bottom line is there was always someone in the battle with the sergeants.
    This is another great article.

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  • Andre Emanuel

    I totally agree with everything you just said. You could not have put it any better. Some tips I have by my own personal experiences:

    Put people in their best positions,
    always maintain a personal relationship to every one of your soldiers,
    and strive to know what motivates each one of them every day.

    And one more thing: never bark orders; instead, explain the idea and reasoning behind every decision you make, and keep them inspired to solve problems on their own. When they are motivated and understand your way of thinking, there will never be a need to bark orders