Leadership Stew: A Metaphor

Years ago, I heard a story using the metaphor I now call “Leadership Stew.” When I first heard it, I thought it was a great analogy to what leaders should do. I began sharing the story with new hires during onboarding only to be surprised how very few had heard the story. I share it here. Enjoy!

A Story About Leadership

The facilitator starts by saying, “This is a story about leadership.”  Everyone usually sits up and is ready to go.  This is followed by the question, “So, how do you cook a stew?”

The look on their faces is confusion!  What does cooking a stew have to do with leadership?

The story continues. “So, if we want to cook a stew, what do we need?”

Still confused.

The group usually needs some help at this point, so the facilitator lets them know there is no right answer.  A stew is a hodgepodge of various ingredients anyway.

So again: “Let’s make a stew.” Then the discussion begins. “So, what do we need?”

“We need a pot,” someone yells.

Ok, there’s a start!

“We need water,” another brave soul pipes up.

“How about some potatoes?”

“Celery.”

“Carrots.”

“Beef.” Now things are really rolling!

“We need a cook. After all, this is about leadership,” adds a voice from the back of the room.

Things usually start to slow down about now. Someone will usually add some more vegetables and some spices. But the question remains, What does cooking a stew have to do with leadership? That question will have to wait. FIrst, they get another question.

The Next Question

The next question usually catches the group flatfooted: “Would you eat that?”

“No!” says one emphatically.

“Absolutely not!” agrees another.

Got it. “Ok, why not?” the facilitator inquires.

The reasons are varied. “It’s not cooked.”

“It doesn’t taste good.” And so it goes.

Here comes the first leadership lesson: If you think about it, the ingredients are a lot like people. Every ingredient must share if there’s to be a great stew. So, how does that happen?

The responses come quickly now.

“Put the heat to it!”

“Stir it!”

“Put a lid on it and put it under pressure!”

“Let it cool!”

“Ok, now would you eat it?” I ask.

“Yes, absolutely!” everyone agrees.

The Last Leadership Lesson

So, we have now made a great stew. The last question in this simple story is this: “Where is leadership exhibited?”

Again, the answers come fast, but they are almost always off-point.

“Leadership is applying the heat!”

“Real leadership is about applying pressure!”

“The leader is the cook, stirring the pot and making thing happen!”

“No,” I contend. The leader is the POT!

Our traditional thinking of a leader is someone who makes things happen. Before the stew is cooked, it is in a state of equilibrium. A change has to take place. The change happens with heat and pressure to create a new state of disequilibrium. Things are at a boil and very chaotic. During this period of chaos, things, people, and ingredients will want to revert back to the old safe way. As it cools, a new state of equilibrium is achieved. A change has taken place.

True leaders hold everything (organizations and stews) together as change is taking place.

Final takeaway: As you lead the process of change . . . Be the Pot.


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Craig Long spent the last 40 years with Milliken & Company in many different roles. For over 20 years he was VP of Quality. More recently, Craig started the consultancy Performance Solutions by Milliken, now operating in 400 operations in 23 countries.

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