Leadership lessons from watching a great cook

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I love to eat. Which is why one of the special blessings of my life is being married to a great cook. The way the Princess learned and learns to cook has several lessons about mastering any worthwhile set of skills, including leadership.

Mastery takes time.

You don’t become a great cook all at once. My wife began learning to cook when she hung around the kitchen as a child. It takes time to become an effective leader, too. First you learn to handle the basics of the job. Then you start working on mastery. The great bosses I’ve spoken with say you should allow a year or two to learn the basics and at least ten years of intentional improvement to achieve mastery.

Learn from the masters.

Princess comes from a family of great cooks, including both grandmothers and her mother. She also learned from another great cook who served as a mentor. Why not learn from the best? Identify effective leaders and watch what they do. Seek out mentors who can help you learn faster and better.

Practicing your craft and learning are the same act.

Every time you cook you learn. And you can’t really learn to cook without cooking. Leadership works the same way. Every real-life leadership challenge is an opportunity to practice your craft and learn from your results.

Innovation is part of practicing the craft.

Part of being a good cook is looking for ways to make dishes better. We joke that the first thing Princess says when she sees a new recipe is, “You know, what you could do …”

No matter how good you are, not every idea will work. Forget “trial and error,” but think “trial and learning.” Princess makes notes on the recipes she uses about what worked and what didn’t and what to try next time. She talks to other people about their experience.

If leadership is your craft, master the twin arts of critique and reflection. They will help you accelerate your improvement. Try new things, keep what works and make it better.

Development is a lifelong pursuit.

Even when you are very good and have been cooking for years there’s still more to learn and to try. The great bosses I’ve observed were still trying new things and learning from their experience after decades on the job.

Follow the recipe the first time.

When I showed the Princess this piece and asked if I’d missed anything, she added that you should always follow the recipe the first time. That gives you a standard you can compare with your changed versions.

That’s good advice for leaders, too. Identify what works for other good leaders and try it yourself. Then critique and reflect and make the technique your own.

Bottom Line

Learning to cook and learning to lead both require time and attention and work. Courses, mentors, and role models can help and you’ll develop faster and better if you master the habits of critique and reflection. If you’re a boss, the idea is to get a little bit better every day. My ebook, Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time can help you. Here are some other books that will help you with cooking and leadership.

Reading Resources on Cooking and Leadership

The Pat Conroy Cookbook is a marvelous book as well as a marvelous cookbook. The subtitle is “Recipes of My Life” and each one comes with a story. In fact, Conroy describes a recipe as “a story that ends in a good meal.” Ben Horowitz’ The Hard Thing about Hard Things tells stories that end in a successful company.

Charleston Receipts was published for the first time in 1950. It’s the oldest Junior League cookbook in print. You must adjust for some things, like the fact that “butter” means “salted butter,” but it’s still a great cookbook. Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive was published in the 1960s, so you must make some adjustments for language and technology, but it’s still a great leadership book.

Sometimes you want a little “science” with your directions. If you’re cooking you can’t do better than The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook which has short “Why this recipe works” explanations. If you’re a boss, you can get something similar from Bob Sutton’s book, Good Boss, Bad Boss.

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