Source: Unsplash

Managing a bar, and the people in it, offers lessons for all of us

Oxfordshire’s Beacon Festival attracts 5,000 people to enjoy music, peruse the craft stalls, and enjoy a beer or three. This is where I come in, helping to set up the bar and serving all weekend. What can we learn about leadership from working behind a bar?

The festival wins or loses on the bar takings. So, the pressure’s on. This is no normal bar: it’s a piece of MDF one metre wide and 20 metres long. The more you wipe it down, the more you see the previous red colour as the black paint comes off.

Friday night, the tent is full of over 200 people… and the entire lighting system dies. No one can see a thing. Punters still want drinks but the eight volunteers behind the bar are trying to work blind. Michael, who is in charge, has gone in search of the errant generator.

How should Michael have done it better? Yes, preventing the problem would have been ideal, but there will always be problems for a leader. He eventually restores the lights, but 20 minutes later they go again. And then again. By now, fuelled by alcohol, everyone is offering advice: “What you wanna do, bruv, is…” Ideas include ‘making the bar free’ (a popular one) to ‘let me have a go at the power thingy’ (less so). What would you have done?

One of the bar staff is an engineer by trade. Her subconscious has been working on the problem since it started. She notices a four-bank plug extension being leaked on by a barrel. “Got it!” She makes a makeshift glove out of something that electricity apparently doesn’t pass through and plugs it into another extension. “Sorted,” she calmly shares. What’s the lesson here that you can use for your team, as a leader? Are you aware of everyone’s strengths and are using them?

Nigel, an 18-year-old volunteer, is serving behind a bar for the first time. He serves three drunk women wearing rainbow hair wigs. Michael, while pouring a pint for his customer, says: “I would have carded them” (ie challenge their age). How helpful is this for Nigel?

How often do you give feedback in the moment? And how do you do it? Not once-a-year formal stuff, but the everyday in-the-moment stuff. It’s easy to question our leaders and their actions, but let’s start closer to home and think about what we could do better to lead and set an example.