What my local sushi bar can teach you about leadership

One of my favourite places to eat lunch is a dinky little Japanese sushi bar 2 minutes’ walk from my office.

Their salmon sashimi is TO DIE FOR and I’ve been known to down not one, but THREE bowls of their miso soup in one sitting.

It’s not only me who adores this quirky spot that serves the best sushi I’ve ever tasted. Every day, the line snakes out the door, and if you’re there past 1.30pm, be prepared to get a sold-out sticker to greet your hunger pangs.

I don’t want to stretch the leadership metaphor too far, but as I stood in the queue on Monday I realised there’s a lot about this bustling little sushi restaurant (with its dancing paper swans, great seaweed salad and terrific service) that leaders can learn from.

Here’s what I mean:

1. They know their strengths – and they focus on them. My sushi place knows that they are great at sourcing and preparing the freshest, highest quality ingredients and creating simple, classic Japanese dishes. They spend time and effort in honing these strengths to become the best in town at what they do. They don’t get all overexcited every time a new fandangled Japanese food trend comes up. They don’t try to be great at everything.

The best leaders do the same. They get a clear and accurate picture of their unique strengths, then they work hard at growing them. They shine a light on them.

Spend the time and effort it takes to find out what your unique strengths are, then work out ways to ace them. Ask yourself how you can bring your strengths into the light in your current leadership role, even more than what you’re doing now.

2. They don’t try to be something they’re not. My little sushi bar doesn’t offer a lot, but what it offers is amazing. The hellishly small menu hasn’t changed one jot in the last five years. They know exactly what their strategy is, what they offer and to whom. You can tell there’s a confident pride in all the staff in this fact.

One of the biggest traps you can fall into as a leader is to try and be something you’re not.

Introvert? Don’t think you have to be the life of the party to be a great leader.

More of a creative vs the number crunching sort? Find ways to use that creativity for the benefit of the organisation and delegate the number crunching to someone else. You’re better off embracing who you are and then focus on being the best version of that.

Socrates said, “Know Thyself” and my sushi bar epitomises this. You should too.

3. They ask for feedback – and then act on it. There hasn’t been one time when this lunch place has not asked me how my meal was – and they genuinely want to hear my answer. One time I even had the owner come up to me, crouch down, and purposefully ask me what they could do to improve my dining experience. Woah – top marks! The one time they did forget something in my order, and I mentioned it, they handled it with overwhelming politeness and respect. They listened.

The best leaders do the same. They regularly ask all their stakeholders (and especially their direct reports) things like: “how can I lead you better?” “How can I improve?” “What would you like me to do more of, or less of, in order for me to support you more?”

The best leaders don’t get defensive, or attack, when they receive constructive feedback. Rather, just like my sushi place, they listen and then act on feedback.

4. They recognise that how you treat people, whether its employees, suppliers or customers, has a huge impact on your long term success. I’ve seen the way these owners of the restaurant treat their staff, and it’s with the same gratitude and respect that they afford to me as a customer. I bet they do the same with their local fish suppliers.

These guys know that people are at the heart of a successful business. Treating people (both those with more power than you and less power than you) with equal respect and appreciation makes you a better leader and gets better business results.

Ask yourself honestly if you are doing your best to treat everyone, from the chairman of the board to the office cleaner to your recruitment supplier, with the same level of courtesy and respect?

It doesn’t matter what you do, be it running a dinky little Japanese sushi bar or running a multi-million-dollar company, being a leader is more than just being the ‘boss’. To be a great leader you need to know your strengths, be true to yourself, listen and learn and treat everyone with the respect you would want.

I hope this has given you some food for thought.

What places have inspired you? Share your experiences – I’d love to hear them.


  1. Lorraine Carr on January 26, 2018 at 11:06 am

    Thanks Suzi, I’m just starting a post grad diploma in leadership in early childhood- so many readings that I’m doing resonant with your imagery!!! Thanks for inspiring me!!! Xxx Lorraine

    • Suzi McAlpine on January 26, 2018 at 9:31 pm

      Lorraine I’m so glad it resonated. Thanks for your comments. Suzi

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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