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Most leadership writers are overly prescriptive about what it takes to be a leader. Lists and recipes abound. Thought leaders suggest they have discovered the “Holy Grail” of leadership that leads to success if only the approach is followed (books and audio-tapes available!). The problem is that leadership is not mechanical and it is not a recipe; rather great leadership is an art practiced by skilled artists, none of whom create their masterpieces in precisely the same way.

Much can be learned about leadership by considering great artists, for example, great chefs. Both leaders and chefs use two major resources to create their successes.

Resource Number 1: Proper Utensils

Great chefs use tools in the kitchen. These tools make their work easier and more efficient and even make the final product more appealing. As a simple example, a chef might use a strawberry slicer to produce perfect strawberry slices for a salad or for decoration. As a result, chefs collect tools and utensils to perform their work. But success is not measured by possessing every possible tool. If a strawberry slicer were not available, the skilled chef would still be able to produce the same result (maybe slightly less efficiently) with a sharp knife and a little more effort.

Utensils aid the chef but utensils are a means to the end, not the end itself. Tools may make an outcome more efficient but lack of utensils in the drawer does not limit a great chef’s success. (In fact having many tools may allow a mediocre chef to look like an exceptional one – for a time. They simply will not be able to sustain that appearance over time. Is this not a major problem with leadership selection today?)

Similarly, a leader uses tools or utensils. The great leader collects and learns to use tools like goal setting tools and communication techniques, conflict resolution approaches, and decision-making processes. Just like the chef, the great leader is always looking for tools that make the job more efficient and more professional but just like the chef; a great leader is not limited by the lack of tools in his or her tool kit. The great leader may not know the steps to setting a SMART goal but as an artist he or she knows that clarity of direction is critical. As a result he or she will find a way to clarify what the goal is and what success looks like.

Great chefs and leaders have a vision of what needs to be done. They have a vision of how to get from “A” to “B”. They do not think in terms of tools but in terms of a roadmap. Today much of leadership development focuses on tools while failing to develop the conceptual overview of what needs to be done. We delude ourselves that leadership tools create great leaders and organizations. Not true. Today many leaders are overwhelmed with a variety of tools but leadership trust is at the lowest point ever. Having tools in their capability drawer with no idea how or when to use use them (except in one defined situation resented in a training session) does not create one of a kind unique leaders. It does create legions of robots.

Lesson: Tools may enhance the artist but they do not limit him or her. Conversely, a leader with all the tools is not necessarily a great leader.

Resource Number 2: Quality Ingredients

A great chef is concerned about ingredients. The chef’s work output is directly affected by the availability and quality of ingredients.

If a meal is planned, the chef will go to great lengths to gather the right, high quality ingredients according to the plan. The chef will ensure that he or she has the proper building blocks to create the desired outcome. In other cases, however, the meal cannot be planned. When a great chef appears in the kitchen for such an assignment, he or she must use what is available. In that case, the chef will innovate and adapt with what is available. The chef will substitute existing ingredients for “recipe’ ingredients to prepare a meal that might look slightly different from a “book” recipe but which will still meet his or her exacting standards. This requires knowledge of both the strengths and limitations of specific ingredients so that they can be mixed and matched to optimize the contribution of each one.

In the same manner, the great leader’s performance is enhanced or limited by ingredients. In this case the ingredients are mostly the human resources at hand. Just like the chef, the leader cannot control the opportunity or situation he or she has been dealt. In many cases (day-to-day work and results), the great leader is able to plan and assemble in advance the proper ingredients (people, capabilities and resources) to create results and sustain high performance. Leaders also confront unplanned and unique situations. In those situations, like the great chef, the leader addresses this unplanned opportunity with the ingredients he or she has on hand. The great leader may not have the exact set of skills and capabilities that the situation requires but like the chef, he or she does not allow this factor to minimize results. The skill of the chef and the skill of the leader are in the mixing and matching of available “ingredients” to achieve intended results. Just like the chef, a great leader must know the strengths and weaknesses of each person so that he or she can organize them in a way to produce desired outcomes.

There is no question that quality ingredients have a significant impact on the outcome. All leaders and chefs want all the required resources in high quantity and quality. In some instances this is not possible and these situations are often the times when the highest creativity, innovation and learning occur. The chef may substitute an ingredient and find he or she has created a masterpiece because the combination of ingredients proves to be superior to the original recipe. These are the moments of creativity that delight the chef and the consumers. In other cases, the chef may realize that the substitution did not live up to expectations and a different ingredient or set of ingredients is required. He or she learns from the situation and is better prepared for this opportunity should it repeat itself. This is also true of leaders.

Great chefs and great leaders are not held hostage by the ingredients that they don’t have. Neither cooking nor leadership is mechanical or a linear process. Both require innovation, creativity and adapting to a situation in order to reach a desired goal. Innovation and creativity both require an understanding of the end result to be attained as well as the strengths and limitations of their “ingredients.

Key lesson: If great leaders are to be developed, the skills of reading a situation, assessing the strengths and limitations of people, and adapting and innovating must be developed.

The Secret Sauce

Greatness for both the chef and for the leader begins deep inside the individual. The magic is not in tools, in classroom training or even in organization cultures but in the passion, the art and the “feel” that resides in the heart of the leader. These types of leaders are not mass-produced but are one of a kind creation.

• Greatness stems from the vision a leader has for what can be. Knowing the end result drives his or her actions.
• Greatness is inspired by and inspires others by potential; potential that resides in a situation, in the person, and in the sum of the whole.
• Greatness does not originate with recipes or tools. Success comes from the leader’s skill in mixing and assimilating ingredients to work together to produce unique results.
• Greatness is not stopped by the absence of tools or ingredients. It is not stymied by fear of failure. Instead greatness stems from the belief that success can be created with what exists.
• Greatness cannot be achieved without a deep knowledge of the strengths and limitations of people. This is perhaps the major limitation of today’s leaders. They learn tools but they don’t study people. This is the root cause underlying the myriad of articles describing inadequate leadership in today’s organizations.
• Greatness does not see ingredients as individual entities. Instead great chefs and leaders see the possibilities of the combinations of skills between people. It is the ability to see and create this mix that is the unique contribution of the artist-leader.

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