In 1755, during the French and Indian War, 23-year-old George Washington was a young officer in the British military. In a famous battle, Indian soldiers ambushed his militia and they came under heavy fire. General Braddock, the commanding officer, ordered his men not to flee and to engage the enemy. Young Washington crisscrossed the front of the battlefield encouraging his men to engage. He had two horses shot out from under him and four bullets shot through his coat, but he was unharmed. I use this dramatic example from American history to illustrate the point of “leading from the front” and its importance as a leader. To clarify, I am not suggesting that this means that everyone should simply mimic the leader; instead, great leaders are servant leaders who are willing to do whatever they ask their team to do. It has been said that, “you can’t lead where you have not been or are unwilling to go.” There is great truth in that statement for leaders.
I recently visited with Phil Friedman, CEO of Mississippi Restaurant Group, who is an extremely accomplished business person whose leadership style is to “lead from the front.” Friedman is a native of New York City and obtained his undergraduate and master’s degree from the University of Connecticut. He also received a MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. A former major in the U.S. Army Reserves, he also served in Vietnam. After working in the manufacturing sector, he took a job with PepsiCo as a director of finance for its Pizza Hut division. This began his long and productive career in the food industry. Friedman has worked all over the United States serving in C-level positions for major food chains including Panda Management Company, Service America Corporation, and Marriot Corporation. In 1999, he was part of a team that bought the McAlister’s franchise from the Newcomb family. Friedman served as CEO from 1999 to 2010, and under his leadership, the company grew from 27 to 300 restaurants. While he could have retired, his love of people and the restaurant industry inspired him to form Mississippi Restaurant Group for the purpose of acquiring a growing other restaurant chains. His group recently purchased Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina, an 80-unit restaurant chain, with plans to expand rapidly throughout the United States.
To “lead from the front,” Friedman encourages young leaders to be engaged and know their organizations. He shared, “I like to get out from behind the desk and regularly visit our stores. It is important to me to visit with franchisees and employees.” Friedman advocates being a learner and a teacher and to acknowledge that every part of the organization is important. He also believes in operating with “open information” where key data is shared throughout the company. Friedman noted, “I played football in college so I believe that the way to lead is to create a game plan and give the ball to your players and let them execute.”
One of the greatest challenges for businesses is how to scale. Friedman shared with me some of the ways that he has lead organizations as they scaled. He noted, “You have to understand the capabilities of the organization and its limitations.” To scale, he believes that you need to have a clear picture of where you are trying to get to and have a plan to address the financial and human capital needs of the organization. Growth comes in stages, and his personal philosophy is that your plan should provide for the ability to make money at each stage of development. He also emphasized that you have to build your foundation to grow which is a never ending process as you continually prepare for the next phase of growth. In scaling a business, experience counts. Leaders that have “been there and done that” have a significant advantage. They know the potential challenges and pitfalls along the path.
It is great for our state to have experienced leaders like Friedman who continue to deploy their skills and talents in building great organizations. I am sure that as his Mississippi Restaurant Group explores other opportunities that he will continue to mentor and inspire younger leaders to “lead from the front.”