Great business leadership only goes so far

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In the summers when I was a college student, I was a waiter at a small hotel off an interstate, a hotel that occasionally was packed with tourists, but more often wasn't. Because the tips weren't great, they could never attract great waiters, and they didn't. They got me.

How bad was I? Well, I once brought a guy's salad to him after I served his family dessert.

I spent several months over two summers, serving tables, working tirelessly but never really improving at my job. I used to make corny jokes ("What's our soup of the day? Well, first of all, it's last Thursday's..."). I was pleasant and courteous, but I frequently mixed up orders, giving people lasagna instead of linguini,bringing them a BLT instead of a burger, and God help the several customers who ordered steak, all of them in different was: medium, medium-rare, well done. To this day, I'm surprised the management didn't take pity on the customers and send me packing.

I kept trying to do better, but I could never quite figure out what I was doing wrong. So I blamed a poor memory, at least under the pressure of pleasing very hungry tourists, and I also blamed my ineptitude on the fact that I had always been something of a klutz -- I often ran into the kitchen, forgetting I had spilled milk earlier and that I hadn't yet cleaned it up. A lot of customers would ask me later what the sound of crashing pots and pans were. But now, after talking to Bill Catlette, co-author of the book, Contented Cows MOOve Faster, I'm rethinking my problem. Maybe I was, as Catlette puts it, "disengaged." After all, I wasn't dreaming of someday being a waiter. I wanted to be a writer.As they discuss in their book, most employees could work much harder at their jobs if they wanted to. Catlette and his co-author Richard Hadden state in their book that "about 25 percent of us are fully engaged (performing enthusiastically), roughly half are 'enrolled' (working but certainly not going the extra mile), and the remaining 25 percent are disengaged (looking for something else to do, throwing sand into the gears)."

And that disengaged segment of workers costs the U.S. economy roughly $350 billion a year, according to Catlette, who cites a Gallup study.

If you own a business, how do you get your employees to be engaged? Well, if you want to boil it down to a sentence, Catlette says that it all comes from "leadership." If you want a few more sentences, he adds that some of the best organizations, and he names some companies like Wegmens, a regional supermarket chain, and the international hotel chain, Marriott's, as being examples of excellence. He says that the best leaders infuse their business's employees with a "warrior spirit" and that good leadership habits have to be "an absolute requirement for your managers -- no excuses, no exceptions." The strong qualities that the leaders have, filter down to the rest of the staff.

He's right that leadership is crucial and can make a difference -- for instance, I can think of high school teachers and college professors who made me want to study harder, simply because I didn't want to let them down. But in the end, I think the key to any particular employee being good at their job is whether they're engaged or disengaged in what they're doing.

There are some jobs where you can have the best leaders in the world at the helm, but it doesn't matter if the employee doesn't want to follow. Maybe if I had looked at my job that way, understanding that I was disengaged, I would have done the hotel restaurant a favor and found a new summer job. Even if Donald Trump had been my boss, I think he would have wound up like several of my unfortunate customers -- pulling spaghetti out of his hair, wiping sauce off his trousers and wondering why and how the frazzled waiter climbing to his feet came to work at this place, anyway.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist, primarily for Entrepreneur magazine, and is the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale, 2007).
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