Leadership is very hip right now. All the cool cats are into leadership these days. I imagine them in skinny slacks, sweater vests and bow ties, hanging around the water cooler, bragging about the leadership conference they’re putting on over the weekend—not attending, mind you. That wouldn’t be leadership at all. I’m reminded of a blog that Warren Kinston wrote about this very phenomenon, one great quote about the popularity of leadership today being:

“Is the ratio in real life a thousand leaders for every single follower? Or is it the reverse? All the effort going into being a wonderful leader is rather pointless if you don't have a few followers. One thousandth of one follower doesn't do much for the ego. Is leading worth the effort?” 

I’ll be honest; I don’t have a lot of real-world experience in this area. I suppose I’ve been a bandleader of sorts, but we always tried to adhere to a somewhat anarcho-communalist ideal—very democratic, very anti-authority. It’s just that someone had to do all the work, and that someone was often me. No, most of my experience in this area is from the perspective of the led. But you learn a lot watching others, so I would like to regale you with:

A Tale of Two Bosses 

It was the best of times, 
It was the worst of times, 
It was the age of the knife, 
It was the age of the spatula, 
It was the epoch of heat, 
It was the epoch of grease, 
It was the Christmas season, 
It was the Mother’s Day rush, 
It was the St Patrick’s Day happy hour, 
It was the Thanksgiving feast.

It all began in the year of Our Lord two thousand and four. The king of the steakhouse kitchen noticed the zeal and stamina of a fresh-faced busboy. He was as sharp as a cleaver, quick with a joke and mild-mannered, and he worked with speed and precision. The royal steakhouse court granted him the title of cook, though he had never before wielded either knife or spatula.

This all occurred as the Great War with Christmas was beginning. The restaurant walls echoed with the sounds of assault after assault of company parties and large family gatherings. Amidst all of this, the steakhouse king was charged with many royal duties: delegating, strategizing, cooking, scheduling, ordering and training. But his authority and capability was unquestioned. With grace and skill, he attended to his duties. With a smile and a gentle hand, he guided his men, offering them the perfect ratio of butter to white wine in a buerre blanc sauce, or demonstrating for them the texture of a truly medium rare steak.

The War with Christmas was won and the steakhouse kitchen king garnered unfailing loyalty from his men. For many years, the steakhouse kitchen was blessed with low turnover and posterity forever remembered the king as a visionary leader.

On the other side of town, the less favored on the whole, the kingdom of the brewpub was in shambles. The king entertained himself with fits of rage and dozens of smoke breaks, causing the desertion of many a member of the royal court. The young busboy, now a hardened knight of the kitchen, was obliged to fight many of the king’s battles for him. And despite his best efforts, he watched as the brewpub kingdom degenerated slowly into chaos.

The king could only handle each crisis as they came. Duties were delegated to the person physically closest to him at the time. The inability to plan further than a few days in advance resulted in scores of dissatisfied customers. Profits sank and in response, the king attempted to pass his royal duties on to anyone he could in hopes of recovery. He did not want to sacrifice a single smoke break, but his minions were not loyal. They feigned to please the king, but took advantage of his absence and inattention and cut corners anywhere they could. They were not paid for their administrative work and eventually began to conspire against the king. Ultimately, the busboy-turned-cook threw his apron down in disgust and never entered a kitchen for the rest of his days.

Back in the 21st Century

Are we talking about a “bad boss” here? Both bosses had the same duties, the same challenges and the same tools. One flourished and one failed. Personally, I’m inclined to call the brewpub manager lazy and incompetent—though perhaps he was simply out of his depth—and the steakhouse manager a brilliant leader—though perhaps he was working at an appropriate level of responsibility. Granted, the job of a kitchen manager is all encompassing, something THEE calls “line management,” and very few people can do it. As the brewpub sank into despair, they offered me the position. I refused and I don’t regret it for a second.

We must acknowledge something else. The culture of these organizations was different. The owner of the steakhouse was involved, present and the steakhouse was his source of income. The hierarchy of authority worked. The owner of the brewpub was an absentee millionaire who wanted his own brewery to show off to his posh friends. He never once entered the kitchen in the three years I worked there.

THEE offers innumerable insights into leadership, management, work organization, being employed, authority, working within organizations and more. In fact, professional, work-related frameworks are probably half or more of what’s on the website. It’s not something I blog about very often because, as I previously mentioned, it’s not my natural area of interest. I do like stories, though, and I think you probably do as well. If this is your area of expertise, I strongly encourage you to click the links, open your mind and jump in.

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