by Christian Youngblood

What spaghetti taught me about leadership

May 11, 20155 mins
IT Leadership

Formal education is important, but many things can be learned from observing the world around us. I recently had a poor experience while eating out and learned more leadership lessons from a plate of spaghetti than any class offered in school.

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Credit: Thinkstock

I stopped by my favorite Italian restaurant for a big bowl of spaghetti and meat sauce last week. It was something that I had been craving for some time and I knew from past experience that this place makes the best. I arrived, placed my order, and then nibbled on some garlic bread while I waited. When it arrived at my table, I could not control myself and took a king-sized bite. “Hmmm…. That tasted a bit odd, let me try another,” I told my wife. Now the second bite was… EVEN WORSE. It was terrible, certainly not up to the standards of this fine establishment.

I have never returned food in my life but that was about to change. I like these people and they needed to know that something was wrong. And, perhaps, maybe I needed to know what had gone so awry. I brought my plate to the counter and the owner offered to cook me something else. I accepted his offer and replaced the spaghetti with a cheese steak.

So what happened? It turns out that my favorite place to eat Italian food has become quite popular. So popular that instead of one cook, they now employ two. On this day, one cook was assigned to preparing the sauce while the other was assigned to cooking the meat. Each believed that only their portion should be seasoned and then mixed with its unseasoned counterpart. The result is that the mixture had double the salt, twice the garlic, etc. It was a disaster.

One may say that the problem was just an accident and that it is not likely to happen again. However, I would like to suggest that the spaghetti fiasco was a consequence of poor leadership.

One of the best ways to ensure that this does not happen again is to improve communication. Suppose all the owner did to resolve this matter was lose his temper and yell “Don’t ever do that again. Now get back to work.” Chances are good that each cook will be ultra conservative and tomorrow’s spaghetti will have no seasoning at all. A leader must create an environment in which employees openly talk to each other and ask questions.

Jobs that require the involvement of multiple people are only successful when there is cooperation. This restaurant now has multiple people with overlapping responsibilities and this opens the door for repetition of tasks. The owner will do his best to segment responsibilities but nobody will know the strengths and weaknesses of these employees better than themselves. By cooperating, each employee will be able to focus on their best assets and work together on those that are more troublesome. A leader must create a team for success.

Work is always performed better by employees that have motivation. A common cause of low motivation among employees is that they are unable to see that their work is making a substantial contribution to the organization. Making an entire pot of spaghetti and meat sauce, using the secret family recipe, is something that creates pride. It is something tangible whereas making a small component will not have the same feeling. How motivated could one be to start an assignment knowing that someone else will be tasked with completing it? What if that other person is not up to the same high standards? A leader will always make sure that his employees are able to feel a sense of accomplishment from this size of their contribution.

Humans are not perfect and we must recognize this fact in the workplace. It is quite easy to be distracted by an incoming call and forget a step in the process. A successful business must maintain proper quality assurance practices to ensure consistent high-quality.

A popular and effective technique used by many businesses is to use a checklist in which every step is defined and marked off as it is completed. Additionally, no product should ever be delivered to the customer without being tested. Food should be sampled, cars should be test driven, movies should be screened, and so on. A leader will provide the training to ensure methods are followed to consistently produce top-quality goods and services.

One may assume that a technology department has nothing in common with a restaurant, but the demands of leadership and the requirements of success have no limits. As my team prepares to upgrade our Microsoft Exchange environment, I find myself asking how these lessons can be used to ensure success of this and future projects.

Does everyone know their precise role and how it will affect others? Is everyone working together and are they prepared to support each other as problems arise? Have proper incentives been made available to ensure they are giving their best performance? How many problems will go undetected during post-implementation testing?

We must master the skills of communication, cooperation, motivation, and quality assurance to be a great leader. We must be vigilant in our pursuit to constantly improve in these areas and we should always be mindful of where we can learn more. I went out to dinner with the intention of filling my stomach with delicious Italian food, but instead I filled my head with leadership knowledge and earned my Spaghetti MBA.