Leadership Lessons from Restaurant Impossible

Over the Christmas holidays my daughter and I were sucked in to a show I had never watched — Restaurant: Impossible. We were sitting around and, next thing I knew, we’d watched two or three episodes in a row. I learned some valuable leadership lessons in the process.

Leadership Lessons

In case you’re unfamiliar with the show, here’s a description from the Food Network website:

Chef Robert Irvine attempts to save America’s most desperate restaurants from impending failure in just two days with only $10,000. Over the course of each extreme mission, Robert assesses all of the restaurant’s facets and then overhauls its weakest spots with updates to menus, retraining staff and implementing aesthetic changes with the help of his design team, before hitting the streets to tell the community about the improved restaurant.

Here’s what I learned:

1. You can get so close to something that you don’t see it anymore.

Each restaurant that Robert helped was failing. They were months or weeks away from closing the doors, despite having a rich history. They could see that they were failing, but that’s about all they could see. This lesson was particularly obvious when it came to decor. One restaurant had peeling paint, stained furniture, sagging ceilings, and missing tiles. Robert and the other outsiders saw it instantly. But the owners couldn’t see it. They were just too close for too long and the familiarity blinded them.

2. People don’t change until confronted with the hard, cold reality.

The restaurants were in a slow, long decline. They knew they were failing. But they still were unwilling to change until Robert came in and brutally showed them how badly they were failing. Much like Simon Cowell, Robert doesn’t mince words. And until people were forced to really see how bad it was, they wouldn’t change.

3. When leaders see problems in the organization, they must take responsibility.

One common theme ran through the failing restaurants: blameshifting. But to turn around an organization or church, leaders must take responsibility. In each episode, the owners had to see that it was their lack of leadership that led to the crisis they were facing.

4. Outside coaching and consultation really helps.

Because of the above truths, having an outside person help you see things as they are is really valuable. This is why I am so committed to receiving regular coaching for my leadership as well as providing coaching for other leaders.

5. People need training to do their jobs effectively.

In one episode, the restaurant served almost all frozen food. They 18 year-old “chef” was convinced this was better than serving fresh food, even challenging Robert to a cook-off. This is because he’d never been trained to cook fresh food. After a 10-minute lesson from Robert, his skills improved tremendously.

In another episode, the owner had never established expectations and guidelines for the serving staff. After being forced to write a manual and train the servers, everyone had clear expectations and enjoyed their job more.

6. Making people afraid of you is effective…in the short run.

Robert is often cruel, harsh, and overbearing — especially to the people on his team. He’s yelling at designers, belittling construction people, and telling them how badly things need to get done quickly. It always works. Within 48 hours, the job is done. But I don’t think this approach would work over the long haul. You can tell that the people he works with tire of it quickly.

Many leaders delight in intimidating others. It works. But eventually people stop wanting to follow you.

7. Having a few loyal customers is not evidence of your effectiveness.

After the big reveal, the restaurants have a new grand opening. One customer attending the event and tasting the new food said, “I’ve been coming here for 15 years and this is definitely better than it’s ever been.” My thought was, Why have you been coming to this awful restaurant for 15 years?

My guess is that along the way the restaurant operators comforted themselves with the fact that people were still coming. Many failing churches operate this way. There are still a couple dozen people so we’re not doing everything wrong! Some people are just loyal to failing things.

In the end, it was a few hours well spent with my daughter. It also made me think how fun it would be to be part of Church: Impossible, helping failing churches turn around. Maybe someday.


What are the marks of your favorite restaurants?

Published by Luke Simmons

I was born and raised in Denver, CO and lived there through high school. Then I moved to Champaign, IL where I attended the University of Illinois and played on the Fighting Illini baseball team. I was married in December, 2001 to Molly, who I met at the U of I. In June of 2002, we moved to Phoenix and have been here ever since.

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