Why successful hospitality leaders showcase habitual kindness

Effective, successful leaders in hospitality are those that display outward kindness regularly.

Leaders in any industry admit to having anxieties associated with making tough choices, especially choices that affect their employees’ lives. The level of accountability and responsibility implicit in serving in a CEO role isn’t for everyone. Mythology refers to the Titan Atlas who carried something very heavy, possibly the weight of the world, on his shoulders. It is typically assumed that this was a punishment that came down from Zeus, king of the gods, after Atlas sided against Zeus in the war of the Titans vs. the Olympians. But the famous Roman author Vitruvius claimed this “burden” was actually a reward, for "through his vigorous intelligence and ingenuity, he was the first to cause men to be taught about the courses of the sun and moon, and the laws governing the revolutions of all the constellations.” Indeed, we have likewise consistently found that modern leaders view their power, influence and responsibility as a great privilege.  

In a Harvard Business Review article, author Michael Mannor found that anxious leaders took fewer strategic risks, finding big bets less appealing despite the potential for big gains. His study of 84 CEOs demonstrates that anxiety plays a sizeable role in strategic decision-making, both good and bad. The best leaders have a “short memory” and a willingness to fight for their beliefs in the face of strong opposition. In fact, aspiring leaders find situations of crisis or change or situations in need of innovation when seeking leadership roles –  is where the opportunities are for greatness.  

Such dynamic and tenuous scenarios can also be fraught with pitfalls, so it is a constant balancing act between walking the high-wire and falling. Then again, it is important and comforting to remember that walking is simply the process of controlled falling. Leaders also state that most great ideas never get realized due to a lack of proper execution. Once you are convinced of your idea (strategy), it becomes a daily focus on the details and execution. This is where the great leaders distinguish themselves. Think of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots; talent only takes you so far. Organizations’ commitment, adaptability and an unrelenting focus on excellence is the only way to win over the long haul. Keeping your eye on the proverbial ball leaves little time for focusing on anxieties.

Course corrections and calibrations are inherent parts of leadership, as opposed to fretting over every consequence – foreseen or not.  It is a privilege to sit on the throne, and any worry that comes a leader’s way should be used constructively as energy and impetus to challenge assumptions, improve ideas and motivate unrelenting commitment to your team, who ultimately carries out the execution of a vision.

The concepts of servant leadership and kindness are integral to hospitality.

Viewed through the prism of leadership maturity, there’s a difference among the terms: accessible, approachable and relatable. Accessible is merely being responsive or reactive to others; approachable advances this idea and entails being welcoming to others; and relatable is being proactively supportive to others.

It’s not about having close proximity to your team, but rather exhibiting a sincere attitude of support and kindness to the team. Building rapport with your teams is the goal of leadership. Rapport is the foundation for the building of trust, respect and inspiration, all of which culminates in having influence with others.

Leadership is a difficult role that involves conflict, chaos, tensions and sometimes very awkward, heartbreaking and mind-numbing situations. This means that leaders must be willing and able to be bold, challenging, authoritative and even forceful at times. Indeed, our psychometric research reveals that instances of political incorrectness and candid, direct language are hallmarks of effective leaders. But the “tough love” and “bold words and deeds” shown by leaders are motivated by a passionate drive for alignment, development and excellence.

Passionate is the key word here. The leaders we studied as part of the research for our book did not exhibit kindness only when it suited their interests. Rather, kindness was and is the currency of choice for interpersonal exchanges, because true leaders understand that servant leadership is judged by one’s effectiveness in serving others and bringing them up personally and professionally. And really when you think about it, this sentiment of daily service and kindness is the essence of hospitality itself.

The physical tangible “product” elements of hotels, casinos, restaurants, cruise ships and entertainment venues can be physically beautiful, emotionally comfortable and intellectually captivating, but in the hospitality industry people are ultimately the product. Kindness, relatability and hospitality will only be given to guests if leaders first hold it as a core value and show it on a daily basis to the service providers themselves.

Keith Kefgen and Dr. James Houran are the CEO and managing director of AETHOS Consulting Group, a hospitality-focused human capital advisory, and the authors of Loneliness of Leadership -  the result of a three-year study of C-suite executives in lodging, restaurants, gaming and other hospitality sectors. They are also the founders of 20|20 Assess - a wholly owned subsidiary of AETHOS Consulting Group -  a proprietary suite of hospitality-specific HR and leadership software for performance management.