By Stephen Gilliland
As we get ready for Thanksgiving my mind naturally turns to food. I love cooking and Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of cooking days. It starts days ahead with menu planning and trying out different flavor combinations in my head. Yet, no matter how much planning I do, on Thanksgiving Day it comes down to tasting, adjusting, and tasting again. What if I couldn’t taste? Would I be lost in the kitchen? Most of us would – but not Grant Achatz.
I recently read the book Life, on the Line, an autobiography of one of America’s truly great chefs. Grant Achatz started young and by his early thirties had one of the top restaurants in America, Alinea. He was named Outstanding Chef in America by the James Beard Foundation. Yet Grant almost didn’t make it to the award ceremony… he almost didn’t make it period. Shortly after Alinea was named best restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine, Grant was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma – tongue cancer. All the experts recommended removing his tongue. For a chef, this was unthinkable. Finally, he found a doctor who proposed an alternate treatment of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. If successful, it would save most or all of his tongue. The treatment killed the cancer, but it also knocked out his sense of taste.
How many of us could successfully continue to lead if we lost the primary sense or talent that distinguishes us as an expert? How many of us would even want to try? Grant continued to go to work each day, developing new dishes by intuition and understanding. You see, Alinea is a restaurant that offers tasting menus with dozens of dishes. And these dishes change constantly. Unlike many restaurants that may have been able to survive by turning out the same great dishes night after night, the concept Grant perfected relied on constant innovation.
The way Grant was able to continue to develop new dishes and advance his culinary concept was because he had developed a strong kitchen team. Not only did they know their job (and each other’s), but they also knew Grant’s tongue. When Grant could no longer taste the food he was creating, they became his sense of taste. As a result, the dishes didn’t falter and the innovation continued.
What a powerful leadership lesson! So many people think they need to hold special powers to be a leader. But true leadership involves developing a team and sharing your vision so that the team can execute successfully. A strong team can keep things going even when the leader is not present. Grant’s story is one of an individual’s strive for perfection, commitment to excellence, and courage to challenge adversity. But it is also a story of building an amazing team. It is a story of leadership.
Every Thanksgiving we voice our appreciation for our abundance, our family, our health, and other blessing in our lives. This year, I want to make sure I also take the time to thank my team for all they do to make me a successful leader. Happy Thanksgiving!
Associate Dean, Executive Education