5 Lessons We Can Learn About Leadership from Barbecue


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For thousands of years, humans have gathered around a fire, relying on its warmth and ability to provide sustenance. And while our gatherings today may look a little different from those of our prehistoric ancestors, there’s still a bit of magic that happens when a group of people gathers for a bonfire feast: it’s barbecue magic. .

I am an avid griller. That means I’m constantly learning new strategies to make the best barbecue possible with food that leaves guests asking for to-go boxes. As I’ve grown as a leader, I’ve realized that many of these strategies I use in the face of fire also apply to my business. So how can we take the magic of the barbecue out of the backyard and into the office?

Barbecue included

There is nothing worse than attending a summer barbecue only to discover that there is no food that fits your dietary restrictions. You’re stuck eating chips and salsa for dinner while the rest of the guests enjoy the party.

As hosts, it’s our job to consider all dietary needs and preferences when creating the menu to ensure all guests can participate. The same applies to creating an inclusive workplace culture: what should be on your menu of offerings to support all people, regardless of their background?

It might be more work for the host, but when we add flavors to the menu, we increase the likelihood that everyone will leave satisfied and maybe even surprised by a dish they’ve never tried before. Likewise, by creating an inclusive and diverse work environment, we not only meet the needs of the different people on our team, but also make a richer and more exciting end product for our clients.

Related: The hard lesson this barbecue entrepreneur learned when he sold out on a corporate sponsor

Control the heat

When you’re barbecuing, you have to be very attuned to the heat of the grill. Want the temperature high and hot to quickly sear a steak? Or low and slow to smoke a bud?

The best grills control their heat; they don’t let the heat control them. In leadership, emotion is our fire and is vital to our success, but it can be all too easy to let our emotions get away from us. Without self-awareness and control, we can overreach, inadvertently burden, or even harm our employees.

Conversely, we can be too “cool”, allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of or letting bad behavior slide. Great leaders know how to modulate their disposition depending on the context and the outcome they’re trying to achieve: they’re in the moment, eyes firmly on the temperature gauge, ready to adjust at a moment’s notice.

Preparation is our friend

A barbecue host’s nightmare might look like this: You’re standing at the grill, sweating bullets, and the food is an hour late. Guests are hungry, impatient, and silently wondering if they should leave and just order takeout.

Without proper preparation, a barbecue can quickly go off the rails. Also, if you don’t plan and marinate the meat or season the vegetables, the food you were going to serve will not only be late, but also inferior.

Our result is proportional to our preparation. Whether I’m in front of the gridiron or my board members, if I’m not prepared, my results will fall short of my goals. When I’m too busy to properly prepare for a board meeting, the meeting is unfocused and unproductive. However, when I take the time to set my goals and collect my notes, the meeting is perfect and we get what we need.

Related: 6 Leadership Lessons I’ve Learned Playing Hockey

The discipline of fire

Grillers know they can’t “set it and forget it,” stepping away from the fire to chat with friends or cool off inside. If they do, they can commit one of the cardinal sins of grilling: overcooking the meat. Your heart sinks as you bite into the charred, dry fish, and more often than not, the food is beyond recovery. Even if we’ve barbecued a million times, we need to monitor the process minute by minute, looking for signs that the food is done.

A “set it and forget it” approach to leadership is equally disastrous. It is vital that leaders stay focused and continuously monitor the health of their companies, projects and people. The processes we build, especially those we can sometimes find “boring” or rote, and the consistency with which we do them allow our business to thrive.

If we neglect regular visits, we may miss an eruption and jeopardize our success. The discipline of great leadership is being by the fire when you just want to sit, have a beer and relax with the rest of the guests.

Cricket with intuition

I don’t necessarily recommend trying this at home, but when I grill, I don’t use a thermometer or follow recipes. Of course, thermometers and recipes can come in handy – I relied heavily on them when I was learning. But over time, I found that when I stopped using them, I was forced to be hyper-present, relying on my senses and intuition to know my next move.

In business, we must avoid relying too heavily on standard logging practices and data analysis, lest we become complacent. These tools provide extremely useful information, but it’s easy to become so obsessed with what the data says that we don’t ask ourselves basic questions like, “What do I think about this? Are we going in the right direction?” One of the most powerful tools we have is our intuition, and sometimes it’s the most useful data point we can follow.

Recipes, thermometers, and data provide the foundation, but what if the thermometer breaks or the data formula is out of date? When we stay hyper-present and focused, we ensure that we don’t miss opportunities or potential problems. And if we want to create something beyond the typical hamburger and move towards the exceptional, we have to save the recipes, take risks and trust our instincts.

Related: Fighting the Secret Battle That’s Destroying Your Culture

Get on the grill

There’s a reason we all love to attend barbecues. But before you stop reading and start planning one, I have a few more tips to set you up for success on the grill and in the office. A round of cricket speed, if you will.

Consider using a spice you’ve never tried before, but remember to taste it before throwing the entire bottle away. This is similar to experiment and iterate in the workplace. Try new things and work to improve them over time.

Also, never underestimate the simple addition of salt and pepper or what a little Worcestershire sauce can add to the overall flavor of a dish. Sometimes it’s the simple things we do in business that get us to the finish line. People may not always notice when it’s there, but they’ll certainly know when it’s not.

Finally, as the great Anthony Bourdain once said, “Barbecue may not be the path to world peace, but it’s a start.” Barbecue might not be what we look to for leadership advice, but it can still teach us a lot.



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