What Does a Cooking Show Contestant Know About Leadership?

Okay, I admit it. I watch more shows on Food Network than all other channels combined (except maybe for History Channel’s Pawn Stars, purely for its historical value). I’m a foodie. It’s my attempt to watch something of more redeeming value than American Idol. I can’t sing, but I can cook.

There is a top show on now called The Next Food Network Star. Contestants scramble for a spot as the next celebrity chef by churning through a barrage of challenges – improvising meals against the clock, taping their own promos, reinventing familiar recipes – all to showcase both their kitchen prowess and their on-camera magnetism.

Judges have pared the original line-up down to four this week. Now the viewers get to vote on line for their favorite. I have watched every episode and have seen a tell-tale pattern: While some contestants clearly flopped when it came to executing a recipe, most of the others who were sifted out over the weeks failed because they simply could not reach deep enough to extract their own “story” – why they love to cook, what it says about them and their roots and dreams, and whether viewers should follow them for some reason other than what is on the plate.

All my votes went to Yvan Lemoine, a young culinary entrepreneur who immigrated from Venezuela with his family ten years ago. His told stories of growing up poor, relishing time with family over modest meals and how he wants people to appreciate the meaning of sharing simple “home-style” meals together. You just want the guy to win – on the show and in life. He’s comfortable with himself and stays outside of his head to connect with the audience.

The point is: How much do we appreciate the role of our own story as leaders in helping people connect with us, understand who we are and feel they are a part of a greater purpose we represent? How much time do we take to get to know others around us and connect at a level that simply is never captured in a strategic plan or performance appraisal?

Tell your story modestly, but find a way to tell it. People want to hear it. It likely will connect with a story of their own. Combine that with a clear vision and you have a winning recipe.


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Do you have as many weaknesses as strengths? Most great leaders do.

 Take a piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle. On the left, list what you feel are your strengths as a leader. Easy, right? Now, on the right, list what you know to be your weaknesses. Are the columns about even, or lop-sided?

It is rare that someone in a leadership role comes up with a list that is longer on the weakness column. Absent a few exceptions out there, it is hardly the case that people are so lacking. Points off for either false modesty or self-flagellation. You have more going for you than that and you know it.

What about if your page shows a longer list of strengths? Could be true, but how do you really know? I sometimes see executives recount their strengths with relish, but only reluctantly list a very few weaknesses, as if they feel they need to have more strengths than weaknesses to be seen as good leaders. Even worse, some “weaknesses” they list are a bit forced or even that are disingenuous: “I sometimes underestimate my real talent…”  (okay, sigh)  Points off for self-awareness or transparency.

I find fairly consistently that the good leaders have a pretty balanced list. Why? Because we all have that same balance as human beings. The fact is we face different situations that draw out or reveal our qualities, good or bad. Too often, we fight our weaknesses, either by denying them or trying to overcompensate for them, or think that some monumental force of nature will transform them into strengths. What separates the good from the great leaders is that they accept the weaknesses as being just as valuable and present as their strengths. Despite our most heroic efforts, we will always have weaknesses.

Openly embracing our weaknesses keeps us humble. It keeps us in touch with others. It ensures we value the balance that others bring. And it reminds us that learning should never stop.

Our failings are not our enemy. They can be the more reliable measure of our willingness and capacity to learn.

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The Path to Growth – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

I was meeting with a good friend and business associate over breakfast a few weeks ago when I asked him what I ask a lot of senior executives: “What’s the biggest, unintended mistake that CEOs and business owners make?”

“That’s easy,” he replied readily. “Too often in planning meetings, they frame up an issue, do a data dump, outline an approach, and even lay out the choices to the team — all in the interests of making sure time is not wasted. They think they are helping their team and being efficient, but as a result, their team does not grow.”

These are talented, earnest, well-intended senior executives, but they sometimes get caught in the notion that their job is to move things along briskly by bringing their business knowledge and expertise to bear at the onset of an effort. (One CEO I knew a while back used to say with pride, “That’s what a CEO is supposed to do – execute!”)  But too many struggle with the idea of allowing their team to feel the yin yang of working an issue – weighing the risks and opportunities, feeling the burden of decision-making, even untangling themselves when group dynamic gets snarled up.

How to avoid this trap?

Take one step forward.  Be clear on the intent of an effort, but not on process or approach. Describe success and what is at stake.

But, then…

Take two steps back.

  1. Let the group figure out what information they need, how they will approach the issue. You might disagree, but I think it is also effective to let leadership emerge naturally out of the discussion rather than assign roles in the meeting based on level. Let someone else go to the whiteboard to capture everything; stay in your seat and pay attention to the team dynamic.
  2. Ask questions to help the team if they get stuck. Socrates understood that questions have a way of refreshing thinking and gently guiding discussions that keeps everyone engaged.  

One of my most memorable business experiences was many years ago working with a CEO and his executive team on a looming financial crisis — the billion-dollar company was teetering on bankruptcy.  We practically camped out together in a conference room for hours and days on end, eating mini chocolate chip cookies by the fistful, throwing ideas on the whiteboard, debating options. Tensions were high and the stakes were higher. I suspected most of the time the CEO knew what might be the best course, but he knew it was more important to executing the plan that we work it out first among ourselves. He kept us focused, asked good questions, and more than once diplomatically called one of the executives out in the hallway to offer some timely advice about behaviors under pressure.  We all fell off our low-carb diet that week, but we saved the company.

Two of the executives in that room went on to be CEOs themselves.

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Character in extremis — a vivid example

My blog last week contended that, since character was not a hidden trait but one that is exposed during tough times, the only way to build such character is to seek out or at least choose difficult paths in life. It may not get you quick results, but it will help you gain enduring qualities.

The blog sparked a note from my longtime friend Larry Kaagan, a seasoned world traveler/hiker and respected environmental scanning trends researcher, who shared an example that brings this to life. He explained that at trailhead kiosks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon there are posters, warnings and all manner of information on how to survive the extreme conditions of inner-canyon backpacking.  People die from exhaustion, dehydration, heatstroke and all sorts of problems down there, as summer temperatures routinely rise over 115 degrees; even “mild” weather in that extreme environment knocks strong people down with stunning regularity.

The most important (some say the “only” important) thing is to drink lots and lots of water.  Hikers are often med-evacuated suffering from dehydration because they were “saving” the water in their canteens.  There is a pamphlet in that kiosk summarizing all the relevant survival information; the title is “Why Suffer?”

On his most recent week-long backpacking trip down there, one of the people in his group, a vastly experienced climber who has left his footprints on mountains in the Himalayas, Alaska and elsewhere, took a look at the pamphlet and put it back with a sneer on his face.  He said, “It should read ‘Why NOT suffer?’ It’s only in extreme situations like these that people learn to reach within themselves and figure out what they’re capable of…”

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Character is More Than It’s Cracked Up To Be

Most of us were told that character is who you are and what you do when no one is looking. 

Maybe. But here’s another thought.

Character actually is what is exposed when the screws are turned down, when the heat lamps are turned up, when the decisions are uncertain, when the temptations are greatest.

In other words, character – for better or for worse – is what shows through during the hard times in life and business.

If so, then there is only one sure way to develop character: Do it the hard way. Seek out the hard lessons. Embrace difficulty. No need to be a glutton for punishment, but there is a certain discipline and satisfaction with realizing at the outset — and certainly at the end — that choosing the less convenient and even grueling path pays the higher dividend. It may not get expedient results as fast, but that’s not the goal. Expedient results are good for today, but by definition have little contribution to the future.

We live in a world of shortcuts. There is no shortcut to building character. No app for that.

Every person I know who has depth of character has a story behind it.

What’s yours?  

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Do We Live Like We’re Worth It?

I visited an old church graveyard this morning. It was dawn; no one else was there. Countless gravestones – some weary and weathered – were festooned with flags. While most who gave their lives in combat rest in formation in Arlington, this modest graveyard spoke more quietly about the decisions that generations of men and women have made. In one scarred and moldy stone was carved a name followed simply by “Civil War” as if nothing more need be said. Another lopsided marker merely said below a name “WarCivil War gravestone of 1812.” For most of the other flag-marked graves, carved into their face, right along all the family affections of father or husband, were rank, branch of service and the war – WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam. There will be more.

You need not go to a graveyard to gather evidence of these choices; look around at the current generation of veterans who are living life without arms or legs – or a peaceful night’s sleep.

What compels anyone to seek out and point a weapon at Death and hope they have the faster trigger, the better aim, is the acceptance that there is a greater purpose, an ideal, that is worth more than their own life.

Too often, I find that the people who scream the most defiantly about their rights to personal liberty are the ones who are least inclined to have their blood join the pool in which that freedom is refreshed. The coffins below these flags hold normal citizens who served — and sometimes died — for a purpose. And here I stand on the holy soil that covers them and wonder if I am living that purpose, a life as a citizen that would be worth it to them.

There is a difference between enjoying freedom and exercising freedom. Exercising freedom is not just acting freely. Like exercise, it is work. It means being informed before I vote, volunteering before I march, giving before I demand, listening before I speak. It even means sometimes a greater good might need to transcend my own.

Our nation is riven and rent by razor-wire ideologies, while the call to govern ourselves and answer a call higher than our own interests is lost in the clamor. We will not always get our way, but part of sacrifice is to realize that. To merely unleash our freedom on each other, as if that is the real test, is to invite the worst form of defeat: Self-defeat.

I know days like today are here to remind us — and most of us, for a time, yield to that. But then there is Wednesday and then Thursday and then the weeks and months, and we, well, forget. Standing here in the dew, I am reminded that I have no clue about what sacrifice really means.

As I looked at the graves — nobody I knew and nobody who knew me — I am thankful, but I’m not sure that’s what they really would want.

I think they want to know if we are willing to live like we’re worth it.

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Keeping opportunities just out of reach

This is a very weird dog. I think it is the offspring of an Ewok and a hairbrush. He has a better personality than looks, but that may not be saying much.

Image of weird dog

I met the dog when visiting a relative recently. In a bid to win his trust, I held out a dog biscuit to him. He eyed me warily (which is a more unnerving experience than you might imagine when you look into his eyes), then backed away, scurrying around the back of a chair. He again advanced to my outstretched hand, only to retreat when the biscuit was merely an inch or two away. This went on for a while, until I got bored with the whole exercise before he did. 

Oddly, he really wanted that biscuit, I was perfectly happy to give it to him, but he simply could not bring himself to cross that last threshold. Risk — most of it perceived due to the unknown — overwhelmed known benefit.

How many times do we do the same — acknowledge our need or interest in something that we just know would be of benefit, but then we back away at the last second or at that last point of commitment?

Sure, a little delayed gratification is good for the soul (and the wallet!), and there are times when it is good to just sleep on an idea or opportunity to consult with people we trust. But too often, I think we miss too many opportunities when we allow what we think is reason to tamp intrigue. Even worse, we tend to talk ourselves out of the very things we know are of benefit and value. There are almost always plenty of reasons not to take a risk, but there was almost always one great reason why the risk seemed worth it. In business, we dare not operate on whim, but we can operate much more on guts and passion. 

So, what is your biscuit? Who or what holds it out to you? What keeps you from taking that last step? 


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The Fallacy of Multi-tasking (and why ants aren’t helped by sunscreen)

Don’t tell PETA, but I have to admit I cruelly killed little animals when I was a kid.

If it assuages anyone’s horror, they were just ants. I also was not alone; a bunch of us kids did it.
Burning ants
You know – find a trail of ants and then train a magnifying glass on it and turn those critters into crisps. I suspect this was a gateway crime for me, leading eventually to me tormenting squirrels with my Red Ryder BB gun and later dousing a rattlesnake with gasoline in my garage and igniting it with a match (the snake, not the garage, although it was a close call). That’s a whole other story. Later…

As fledgling scientists (and, of course, it was all in the pursuit of science!), we were morbidly fascinated with the energy and power that could be generated by concentrating the sun’s energy on what, honestly, most people would consider a problem.

Sometimes we forget that child-like fascination. I see far too many people who take pride in what they believe is their ability to multi-task. A growing body of research disputes that notion, contending that we are simply shifting our focus at astonishing speed from one activity to another, but hardly absorbing ourselves in any of them. We think we’re getting a lot done; in reality, we are missing a lot.

Solving the bigger problems or addressing the real issues we face as leaders takes focus. One of my clients has a great, confident way of putting it: “When I focus on it, it goes away.” It is what Claremont College professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “the flow” – the experience of fully immersing yourself in a task, drawing on all of your energy and focus, to the point where the task is exhilarating, the result is often transformational, and your sense of accomplishment goes to a new level. As well, time flies. For me, it was working through the nights, weekend after weekend, restoring a ’57 Chevy in high school, assisted only by my mechanically-inept friend Mark and an old tube radio blasting Booker T. and the MGs. The work was easy, and we got it done.
With all that going for us – less stress, greater sense of purpose and happiness, better results – why don’t we do it?

It takes discipline. The enemy of focus is distraction. Distractions are, by definition, something we allow. They do not demand attention; we relinquish it to them. When you realize the broader benefits that accrue to us by exercising that discipline, the value proposition around avoiding distractions becomes pretty compelling.

What are some of the big problems, issues and opportunities in your business? How long have they been hanging around? What will it take to focus on them? Are you willing to take that day (or more!) to do nothing but focus on it, get into that flow?

Indulgent? With some many other things coming at you?


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Mistakes Aren’t Fatal (unless you build helicopters)

A few weekends ago, my seven-year-old grandson and I built a helicopter
Not a real one; it was just Legos. I won’t bemoan the loss of imagination in the new versions of the blocks – where your job is no longer to create something of your own design but rather figure out what Legos wants you to do. However, as a result, our task was to assiduously follow detailed, piece-by-piece instructions if we had Legosany hope to getting to a finished product.

Along the way, my young builder got a few things wrong. Sometimes that meant backing up several steps to get back to the failure before we could move ahead. Sensing his frustration and temptation to blame the instructions (or me!), I encouraged him to see mistakes as normal, even necessary to the process of learning. It’s not the mistake, I told him; it’s what you do after the mistake that matters. Sure enough, after a few more misplaced blocks, he eased into this idea of embracing mistakes, laughed at himself, and even found some patterns to the mistakes, which he quickly corrected.

We all hate making mistakes (and certainly if you keep making them, someone else will hate it, too!), Learning does not come from doing things right repeatedly; it comes from stretching yourself enough to make some mistakes. That points us to where we need to learn.

We did finish the helicopter. I made a few mistakes myself, notably when I put a black block in a place the instructions called for a blue block (I did not think the difference in colors in the instructions was very clear).

My grandson pointed it out to me.

“Pops, trust me. That’s blue, not black. I know – I have super-human sharp vision.”

Gotta love ’em.

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Funny, isn’t it?

When we listen more than talk, people say we are great conversationalists.
When we ask questions rather than offer answers, they say we have good ideas.

When you ask the question that feels hard to ask, they are relieved you did.

When you let them share their story rather than tell your own, they say they feel like they know you better.

When you ask them to explain their problem, they often come up with a good solution on their own.

When you laugh with them, they will say you have a great sense of humor.

When you have the courage to cry with them, they do not feel so alone.

When you help them discover who they really want to be rather than tell them what they need to do, they are inspired to change.
When you remind them they are a good person, they want to be an even better one.
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