Café’s have always held a prominent and positive space for me, as I passed through the trials of education and work. I have fond memories of hours spent and misspent in my university years, drinking fearsome double espressos at Da Clemente’s in Rundle Street, Adelaide preparing for tutorials, but truthfully, mostly people watching. And in my professional years, whether working from home or in the office, many a breakthrough thought or burst of productivity has been created by taking my laptop, or pad and pencil into a welcoming café space, where I can be fed and stimulated by the ambience, the social movement of strangers, and great food and coffee. For many of us, a devastating impact of lockdowns has been a detachment from our favourite café, as well as seeing our hospitality industry suffer through the economic and emotional disruption and inequity.
Particularly now, as years of investment in our leadership capability and research are put into sharp application, we think about our leadership shadow. What are the impressions we create? What impact do we as leaders have on our workforce, both conscious and unconscious? What we say, and how we act, defines the culture of our teams and businesses, and therefore impacts on how productive we are in working towards our strategic and operational goals.
We learn that we must consider a range of alternate data points on leadership and culture to measure our own effectiveness. Through advanced technology in workplace measurement, we have improved how we gather an accurate read on the culture of the workforce. And we have developed a clearer sense of our own identity and levels of self-awareness through personality and psychometric assessment.
But have you ever thought about how we present as leaders to those people who often see us in unguarded moments – our highly trusted and valued baristas and café workers?
From behind the hissing Faema café machines, frothing milk, enticing coffee aromas and tempting pastries, how much do our hospitality colleagues notice in terms of our demonstration of leadership? Well, a hell of a lot, it turns out!
As a dedicated and thorough researcher, I took this question out to the streets and diligently ate and caffeinated my way through a wide selection of city and suburban cafés. Through mouthfuls of almond croissants and slurps of flat whites, I quizzed our baristas and café workers for their observations on how their loyal and regular customers demonstrate leadership.
“We talk about it all the time!” says Alex, who has owned and operated his Melbourne CBD café for many years. “It’s fascinating! So much of it is through body language and non-verbal cues. We are always saying to each other, did you see that (a person’s behaviour), and how their team reacted.”
Debate rages on in academic circles, whether leadership is a natural born attribute or one that can be learnt. How might one who is uncertain about leading, learn the tricks and behaviours on how to hold themselves and project the aura of leadership? “You can spot a leader as soon as they walk in”, says Anna, a fellow barista in a Melbourne city café, juggling a complex array of coffee orders as they come in. “There is a swagger as they walk in – you notice them; head up, deliberate long strides, chest and shoulders out, as if they are trying to occupy as much space as possible with their body. They project an energy.”
In contrast, Alex observes the body language of team members following the leader into his café. “They often look submissive – you see a drawn in body position, shoulders rounded, and kind of tentatively enter the café.” They sort of look around corners even as they enter, almost like they are asking permission to come in.”
The American football coach Vince Lombardi is often quoted as saying: “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.” This observation continues the conversation my CLA colleague Jason Zhu penned in his article on legendary basketballer Michael Jordan and his leadership credentials. Jordon is quoted as saying “Everybody has talent, but ability takes hard work.”
Conversely, for the ‘leaders are born’ argument, a study from Wake University (Hannah 2013, p 393) found that there are neurological differences in the brains of people who had been identified as leaders. This rather fatalistic view of leadership echoes traditional theory characterised by Spencer (1896, p34) : “[Y]ou must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown, before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”
Our barista Alex, perhaps considering those of us unfortunate to not be born with leadership traits recalls; “then there are the fake leaders – the ones who think they’re leaders but they are really not. They might have the position, but they’re so fake – usually loud and obvious, and trying to play the part. You can tell that they are just acting it, and everyone around them feels really awkward.”
Raffaele, who greets all comers to his Collins St café with a welcoming “Buongiorno!”, notices the role of facilitator in the conversation in a café setting is usually taken up by the leader. ”I notice when a team of people come into my café, the leader is usually the one making sure that everyone contributes to the conversation. They demonstrate warmth and invite people into the conversation. You can see they are actively listening by their body position, and there is an energy in their eyes as they listen to others. They kind of take responsibility for the quality of the conversation. It is impressive to watch.”
Our barista Anna sees that the leader usually sets the tone of the conversation in the team. “If the leader leads with a loud belly laugh and set a lighter mood, the rest of the team seem to relax, have a laugh and get more involved.” “On the other hand, if the leader brings in a pen and starts ticking things off on a piece of paper, everyone gets super serious and people take it in turns to speak, but usually no one wants to.”
It turns out the all-important payment process doesn’t escape observation. “Leaders always want to pay the bill as well – but it’s like a power play. They flash the credit card and gesture to everyone, don’t worry, I’ll get this” says Alex. Anna has experienced this at the next level – once hearing a leader remark to their colleague, ‘don’t worry, you don’t earn enough to pay the bill.’
Raffaele reflects on one particular experience of observing leadership he had in his café: “There was one lady, she always came in by herself – I never saw her with anyone else or talk to anyone. But she was nice, always polite. She would come in quietly, and never make a fuss, but you could just tell she had a presence of authority. She seemed unflappable, always well presented, and seemed like she always had time to sit and just keep to herself. I found out later she was the boss of a really large company and had enormous responsibilities. But she always just seems so composed.”
This contrasts with Alex’s view of less impressive leaders. “They’re on the phone in the queue, or looking really agitated if they have to wait, like they’re much more important than anyone else. They come off looking not very good at their jobs – not very organised or in control you know.”
So, what do we take from this unique insight? A couple of observations for your consideration:
- The vexed question of leadership presence. The mysterious elixir that some have on tap and others are starved of. The observations from our baristas are insightful; they point to posture and pace of movement. Holding ourselves high (even if we are vertically challenged), shoulders back, head high and purposeful forward movements. Deliberately slowing the pace of our movement just a fraction. These observations give us hope – there is a physiology to creating this presence that is inclusive and available to many of us in different ways. This concept is further examined by CLA colleague Lisa Everton in her article, The Charisma Myth.
- Those behavioural lessons we’ve heard a thousand times – listening skills. Actively listening with interest to what others have to say. Leaning into the comments of others. Showing warmth and interest in people and what they have to say. There is some demonstration of emotional intelligence here.
- Authenticity. Another complex concept wrapped in a single, overused word. What if our natural style feels in conflict with observations on leadership energy? What if it feels natural and authentic for us to move quickly, talk rapidly and multi-task? Many very effective leaders are authentically less comfortable socialising with people. Well, our baristas tell us that authenticity trumps leadership energy. On the spectrometer of leadership presence, authenticity is the starting point. The physical traits of leadership presence observed in point 1 may move the needle to the right, but if it’s “fake”, as our baristas tell us, the needle goes dramatically backwards. So, what do we do with this? The simple truth is our authentic selves are not static. In fact, we are ever changing, in ways, we are often not aware of. But we can exercise conscious choice here, and nudge our authentic selves in a direction that we are comfortable with. Dramatic shifts are awkward and hard to pull off, but small traits that are consistently practised make a difference over time.
- The baristas I met shared with me a beautiful simplicity about the importance of respect and manners in leadership presence. When feeling like we are hectic and under time pressure, agitating for queues to move faster for us, hurdles to be vaporised in front of us, and we just must answer the phone while juggling our wallet and laptop, we often get caught in a narrow mindset where stepping back and taking a reflective breath for a moment can help us.
- Teams reflect and react to your energy. If your goal is to have a fun, casual, team connecting moment, project this through your own behaviours. But if we are focused on a work outcome, best achieved through that powerful mix of collaboration plus caffeine, then we set an appropriate and more formal tone. But within a single café sitting, it’s confusing for others to mix the two social modes.
- Leaders often lament that ‘you always have to be on’. We are always being watched, and the behaviour of leaders no matter how small is always noticed, and usually for worse than for better. I have no good news for us here – even in our favourite cafés we are in the workplace, and our leadership shadow continues to have an impact. Suck it up people – it’s part of the deal!
- Demonstrating inclusive leadership: inviting everyone into the conversation. Facilitating the conversation and creating a safe and warm space. There is an element of formality here – it is not quite a natural conversation you might have with your friends or family. There is a conscious structure in our behaviour, and that is a good thing.
Our baristas give us an insight into a side of ourselves that we don’t often see: the third person perspective, the helicopter view. What is the subconscious energy that we create around us? There is also an unvarnished and direct expression, free from our subtle language learnt from corporate life that gives us glorious clarity.
What are your thoughts and reflections on this unique view? I’d love to hear about your own observations of the café work environment!
And finally, my thanks to the cafés, baristas, owners and café workers of our cities and towns. Thanks to the time and insight shared by the great people who contributed to this piece, and who are important parts of my regular day. We know this industry is doing it tough and look forward to being part of the resurgent foot traffic to generate commercial success and sustainability for our cafés and all hospitality businesses.
Hannah, S 2013, ‘The Psychological and Neurological Bases of Leader Self-
Complexity and Effects on Adaptive Decision-Making’, Journal of Applied
Psychology – American Psychological Association, Vol. 98, No. 3, pp. 393– 411,
viewed 10 July 2013, http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/apl-98-3-393.pdf
Lombardi, V (n.d.) , Quotations, Brainyquote, viewed 27 June 2013,
Spencer, H. 1896, The Study of Sociology, Appleton, Retrieved 6 July 2013 from