You're Doing Leadership Wrong

Being a leader isn't about having the loudest voice in the room.

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Service jobs can be very hierarchical. Most spaces rely on clear, delineated roles and structures, where there are layers of bosses, managers, and higher-ups running the show.

For so long, we’ve been taught that these people are leaders. But being at the top of an organization’s chain of command does not make one a leader.

In the latest episode of Boss Barista, I talked to ChiSum Ngai and Kaleena Teoh of Coffee Project New York. Coffee Project started as a small neighborhood shop in the East Village in New York—and initially, Kaleena and Sum envisioned the shop as a place they could both work together and be happy. Soon, it expanded, and now their company includes four locations, a roastery, and a training lab. 

Operating a business of this scale is a far cry from opening a small shop meant to employ just you and your partner. I asked Kaleena what the transition into a bigger leadership role was like, and I was surprised by her answer: 

Ashley: As Coffee Project has grown, you’ve added more positions, you’ve added more branches, now you’re roasting, you have an operations manager. What have you learned about yourselves as leaders? Was that a difficult transition for either of you?

Kaleena: I think, generally, not really. In the past, our previous experience, we volunteered in mentoring programs. I don’t know about you, Sum, but back in school, I did a lot of activities, planning activities and stuff. I guess in my life, I’ve been doing things like this, but as a shop owner, that’s when it comes to the point where you realize that you have to be the leader of a company and this company no longer just comprises of you and Sum, like me and Sum…

We’re often taught that leadership has to do with hierarchy. The leader is the decider, the person who steers the path for the rest of the team without question. But what Kaleena was saying is that leadership is much more akin to mentorship. 

A mentor is foremost an adviser, someone who helps you make decisions and find the best path forward. A good mentor can inspire their mentees to see the best in themselves, and empower them to take control over their working and creative lives. If we equate the responsibilities of a leader with the role of a mentor, we take out all the hierarchical assumptions of leadership. The leader is no longer a bottleneck, a person through whom all decisions must flow before they are executed. Instead, they’re a launching pad, helping folks envision the best solutions for the problems around them while learning more about their own individual potential. 

Leaders are not always assumed to be mentors, and I don’t know if many leaders see their responsibility to their staff in that light. But the way Kaleena describes it, being a good leader means helping people around you realize their potential—and growing alongside them as well. It also means being comfortable handing off much of the daily nitty-gritty and focusing on bigger ideas. 

In the company, when we are doing certain things or coming up with certain roles or having to fill certain positions, we always try to align our goal with the individual’s goal.

If you’re heading in the same direction as your team members, then I feel like it’s a win-win situation. They enjoy the work that they’re doing and you, on the other hand, you know you’re growing your company in a direction that you wanted it to grow.

As Kaleena describes it, leadership is much more about fostering success than it is about ego and control. A successful leader, in this case, is the person who can help an employee make a good decision rather than one who needs to have the last say in what decision is made. A successful leader can walk away and trust that their employees can handle what comes to them. An unsuccessful leader makes decisions impossible, and relies on validation through decision-making. 

This conversation with Sum and Kaleena reminded me of an interview I did in 2019 with Sarah Hewett-Ball of Full Stop in Louisville. In this episode, she described a rotating system where all members of staff traded off managerial responsibilities, assuming tasks such as writing a schedule and ordering supplies every two weeks. In this instance, the manager is clearly not the leader—instead, Full Stop has team meetings to make important decisions and leadership is communal. 

Not every shop is designed this way, but I like this example because it demonstrates a successful form of leadership that isn’t tied to traditional managerial hierarchy. At most coffee shops and restaurants, managers or owners are presumed leaders. But as the Full Stop model shows, it’s entirely possible to make big decisions as a group, and to invite workers of all experience levels to take part in shaping a business’s direction.

Ultimately, being a leader means more than just being a decision-maker, and it requires building up the people around you. If the folks around you feel safe, empowered, and can be responsive to situations that arise in their environment, then you might just be practicing good leadership. 

Before you go…

There are moments of childhood and young adulthood that are small but feel huge, soul-churning, and unforgettable. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro captures the significance of the minute—while telling a huge, dystopian story that’s grand in scale. 

In doing research for this piece, I read a report from the Harvard Business Review about the gendered assumptions of leaders. It didn’t quite fit into this piece, but it did articulate the ways we often view men and women differently in similar positions. 

And everyone’s listening to fellow comrade Olivia Rodrigo, right? Who could write such a perfect line like, “And they’d all be so disappointed / ’Cause who am I, if not exploited?”

Also, for real—go back to last week’s post and read everything Brian Gaffney recommended.

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