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5 Lifelong Leadership Lessons I Learned from Norman Brinker

5 lifelong leadership lessons

February 9, 2017

By: Jeff Campbell

Few leaders in the restaurant business can lay claim to the level of success the late Norman Brinker saw during his storied career. More than an executive, he was instrumental in establishing many of the casual dining and fast food mainstays you see across America today—from Chili’s and Bennigan’s to Jack in the Box, Burger King and others. This is the man who literally invented the salad bar in the 1960s at his Steak & Ale restaurants, which are rumored to be making a comeback in 2017.

I had the opportunity to work for Norman when I first became President of Burger King USA. I knew then that I had a true luminary for a mentor, and looking back on my time with Norman only adds to the profoundness of his influence. Here are five unforgettable leadership lessons I learned from him.

1. Inclusive Leadership

Before TED Talks, “startup culture,” and workflow applications ever existed, Norman Brinker was practicing and instilling inclusive leadership, meaning he was involved as a collaborator at every level. In my previous article on mentorship, I told a story of how Norman read a memo I had sent to a senior leader. His critique: that instead of trying to prescribe actions to a subordinate, I should give him the objective and allow him to design the path to achieve it. “You might just come up with some new ideas yourself!” he said.

2. Leading by Example

Leadership for Norman wasn’t telling; it was teaching. For him, the concept of leading by example stretched beyond the cliché and into the everyday. He modeled the behavior he wanted to see from others. I particularly remember how unobtrusively yet deliberately curious he was. Whenever we would travel out of town, he would always strike up a conversation with the taxi drivers, food servers, and anyone he could gain insight from.

3. The Importance of Understanding

In the same vein as his inquisitive nature, Norman always made a point to understand his key players as deeply as possible. He even kept two psychologists on staff to interview potential new hires. It might sound a little strange, but it was his way of adapting to each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies.

4. Identity

Company culture is another area that Norman pioneered. Oftentimes, he would start a meeting with a question like, “Who are we?” or, “Who do we want to be?” The reason Norman’s ventures were so successful was because he knew how to create clarity—internally and externally—around a company’s purpose, mission, and values. His ability to create identity also encouraged innovation and constant improvement.

5. Urgent Optimism

Both personally and professionally, Norman was an infectiously positive spirit. He was a former Olympian and had been married to a Wimbledon champion—a winning mindset was all he knew. Even in his later years while his health was declining, if you asked him how he was doing, he would respond emphatically: “I couldn’t feel better!” and then he’d rattle off his upcoming travel plans. Put simply, if Norman ever had a down day, you would never have known.

Discovering Your Leadership Principles

The lessons above are all deeply embedded in our leadership curriculum here at the San Diego State University Hospitality & Tourism Management (HTM) Master’s Program. Over the course of 18 weeks, we explore, discuss, and practice the qualities of an effective leader. But, more importantly, the program is a platform for you to discover the ideals that resonate with you, so you can become a truly confident leader. For a quick intro to the HTM Master’s Program at SDSU, click here.

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