Is a Shift in General Manager Leadership Styles the Answer?

The hospitality industry—hotels, restaurants, resorts—faces some of the most challenging issues of any industry. From frontline employee burnout to growing customer expectations and increased competition, there is no shortage of issues that can cause a headache for general managers (GMs) as well as impact their business’s bottom line.

As we have all seen with local restaurants, some businesses in this industry close shortly after they open, while others succeed in profitability, market share, quality assurance, and customer satisfaction.

So, what makes these establishments successful compared to others? Hotels that have achieved a high level of sustained success may often attribute that success to their leader, the general manager.

After 25 years in the hospitality field and studying management at hotels, I must agree. However, interestingly enough, successful general managers can often employ different primary leadership styles and still be successful.

Leadership Styles

General managers might be inclined to one of two distinct leadership styles. The first, transactional leadership, describes a style that is task-focused, bureaucratic, and authoritarian.

In contrast, transformational leadership relies more on motivation by appealing to higher ideals and moral values. This style is often more likely to inspire trust, loyalty, and respect in employees and tends to be considered the more effective of the two.

Servant leadership is another leadership style that hinges on empowering and developing people, humility, authenticity, interpersonal acceptance, providing direction and stewardship.

leadership styles are not mutally exclusive. Rather, they can be thought of as being at different ends of a continuum

However, it is important to note these leadership styles are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they can be thought of as being at different ends of a continuum. This distinction is key when thinking about the success of managers.


READ ALSO: Different Types of Leadership and Management Styles; Quick Overview


The ability to adopt different leadership styles as needed is one of the key traits of a successful general manager, as it not only increases motivation among employees but also helps ensure tasks get completed. But what causes this shift in leadership styles?

Three General Managers – Three Different Leadership Styles

When observing three different general managers, each a manager of successful hotels that have received multiple awards and accolades, it became clear they all employed distinctly different leadership styles.

Whereas one manager demonstrated a balance between transformational and transactional leadership styles, the second was primarily a transformational leader, and the third a servant leader. All three can be effective leadership styles when applied appropriately.

Despite the differences, all three general managers demonstrated an intuitive ability to shift their leadership style in different situations. For those in the hospitality industry working their way up the ladder into hotel management roles, leveraging these three insights will help set them up for success in terms of knowing when to shift general manager leadership styles:

1: Balance guest needs with employee needs

When balancing the needs of guests with those of their employees, general managers can recognize and reward employees for good performance while creating incentives for them to improve.

For example, if a front desk employee is praised by name for providing excellent service, the general manager can reward and recognize them for doing their job. This exemplifies transactional leadership.

successful general managers share credit with their followers and demonstrate inspirational motivation

On the other hand, when dealing with customer issues or complaints, the general manager can switch to transformational leadership by acting in a way that inspires an employee to respect and imitate their actions. Additionally, rewards that are not based on rules or job performance expectations, but rather are meant to thank employees, can boost morale among employees.

Moreover, successful general managers share credit with their followers and demonstrate inspirational motivation. Not only can this deepen relationships with employees, but it can also influence customer satisfaction ratings and thus bottom-line profits.

Successful general managers do not always put customers first, nor do they always put employees first. They find ways to ensure that each group feels respected and rewarded. Employing multiple leadership styles can help balance these two factors.

2: Prioritize employee development

Employee development requires different skills that often focus on individuals and their knowledge, abilities, and experience—in other words, the value they bring to the organization. However, general managers can approach employee development in different ways.

For example, using creative staffing or providing cross-training for employees can challenge them to be more knowledgeable and flexible, while also allowing them to showcase different skills and making them feel like a valuable member of the organization.

Mentoring programs can also empower employees to grow through individualized attention, which can help mentees improve performance and confidence in their role as well as their understanding of the organization. Mentors also serve as role models who can inspire, empower, and encourage development in employees. 

3: Use mistakes to help employees learn lessons

In handling mistakes, general managers often utilize their primary leadership styles but occasionally step out of them. Some general managers redirect employees when they make a mistake. They typically look for the other side of a story and take time to explain to employees why specific rules exist or why their behavior is incorrect. Moreover, they encourage employees to learn from mistakes.




When to Shift General Manager Leadership Styles! The Bottom Line

It’s important to recognize that managers can have different leadership styles yet still run a successful business. In fact, it’s almost certain that a successful general manager will often need to switch styles—sometimes veering away from their typical approach to properly address the situation at hand.

Good general manager leadership will not only positively impact employee performance, but it will likely lead to increased employee satisfaction. This will in turn ultimately help improve bottom-line profits.

From learning to balance the needs of guests with the needs of employees, to encouraging employee development and creating learning moments out of mistakes, all managers can draw from these insights to better understand the dynamics of a shift in general manager leadership styles to meet the needs of their business.



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Dr. Jenni Sandstrom is a clinical assistant professor of hospitality leadership and lodging-related courses at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business. A 2015 graduate of the Carson College hospitality Ph.D. program, Sandstrom brings 25 years of hotelier expertise and believes learning from hotel industry leaders bridges a gap between classroom learning and professional practice. While in the industry, she earned many awards, including “Hotel of the Year” for Residence Inn by Marriott and “General Manager of the Year” for TownePlace Suites by Marriott. She has also published papers in the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research, the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, and ICHRIE Research Reports.