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A Butcher’s Lessons on Leadership

May 30, 2019

Last week, I spent three days in Columbia, Missouri, for the first edition of Capital Camp.

One of the morning activities took place on a picturesque farm. Overlooking the rolling hills below, we learned the basics of butchery from the master Michael Sullivan.

On the bus ride back into town, Dhani Jones and I discussed what we had learned. The more we talked, the more insights we realized we had gained.

These lessons apply to the kitchen. But, more importantly, they also apply to mastery, leadership, and life.

1) The Skin Noodle Principle

Utilize Your Asset

A pig is an investment. You purchase it from a producer, with the goal of selling the butchered pieces of meat for more than you bought it for. You generate a profit by adding value.

So the more of the pig you can use, the more you can earn.

A butcher with a charcutier background like Mike Sullivan will use every single piece of the pig. He turns sinew into salami, kidney fat into soap, he even transforms ears and skin into “skin noodles”. He doesn’t let anything go to waste.

Everything’s an offer, if you dare to look past convention.

→ Leadership: Make the Most of Your People

An employee is an investment. You hire people with the goal of maximizing their potential. As a leader, you support that process by creating the right conditions for them to bloom and thrive. By bringing more of their potential out, you leverage their value and add value to the business.

This requires allowing the whole human to come to the table. A human being is more than one’s well-formed strengths – it includes one’s quirks, fears, and shadow sides, too.

It takes a psychologically safe environment to feel comfortable enough to show those sides of oneself. But the integrative and aligned mindsets that result lead to a range of better outcomes. As Carl Jung pointed out, if we avoid our shadow sides, they “will only crop up as a hindrance elsewhere, not just at some unimportant point, but at the very spot where we are most sensitive.”

Instead of fighting against ourselves by trying to fit into molds, leadership of the highest order allows people to get more in touch with themselves. As biologist Francisco Varela states: “The way to make a biological system more healthy is connect more of it to itself”.

That means using it all, ears and sinews included.

2) The German Knife Heuristic

Know Your Tools

It’s essential for a butcher to grasp the tools of the trade. Knives, cleavers and saws vary in their size, strength, nimbleness, sharpness, and weight. Each tool has its place and use.

A tool’s effectiveness depends on its history and origin. Take Japanese knives, for example. Back when the traditions of knife-making emerged, large animals didn’t inhabit the country. Japanese knives were designed for handling smaller animals like fish and poultry.

Germany, in contrast, has always had an abundance of cows and pigs. Their knives became well-adapted for big bones and thick cuts of meat.

Even to this day, German knives are more suited for larger animals, and Japanese knives for smaller ones.

A butcher has a limited amount of variables to play with, so using the right tool is key. When cutting meat off the bone, a small and flexible boning knife is appropriate. Any urges to impress onlookers with massive cleavers are put to one side. A butcher won’t use an axe just because it’s larger and it seems more powerful. A butcher will use the right tool for the job.

And those tools will always be kept sharp. A butcher never stops honing his blades.

→ Leadership: Know the Tool of Yourself

A butcher’s tools are knives, saws, and cleavers. A pianist’s tool is the piano. A painter’s tool is the paintbrush.

But what is the tool of a leader?

You are your leadership tool. That means knowing the in’s and out’s of how you function. Your history and the story you tell yourself about yourself. What drives you and what triggers you. What causes you to get annoyed, and what makes you feel threatened.

This self-knowledge lets you know which blade of leadership is applicable for a given situation. You don’t scream and dominate when a more sensitive, empathetic approach is called for. Domineering and controlling might inflate the ego, but they’re rarely the right tool for the job at hand.

Constant and continuous self-awareness is the sharpening of your knife. By leaning into every moment with the intention of learning about yourself and perfecting your craft, you’re polishing your blade of leadership.

3) The Baby Back Fallacy

Leverage the Magic of Marketing

When you think of ribs, odds are it’s the baby back variety that come to mind. You’d think they are tastiest, most tender type of ribs, right?

Wrong. Baby back ribs come from high up of the pig, close to the spine and the loin. They have low fat content and a short length (the name referring to the size of the bone, not the age of the pig).

St. Louis-style spare ribs are much longer and flatter due to their placement further down towards the belly. They have more meat on the bone, and by all accounts they’re more flavorful and tender.

So why are the inferior baby back ribs more expensive than spare ribs? Because of marketing.

Food producers and manufacturers put marketing muscle behind baby backs because, not despite, they have less taste and meat. With a cute and approachable name, they stick in your mind, and even bring up associations of tender veal. The industry deliberately turned a weaker product into a more marketable offering.

They’re still laughing and licking their lips all the way to the bank.

→ Leadership: Turn Weaknesses into Marketable Strengths

As noted above, weaknesses and shadow sides can wreak havoc if they’re not welcomed to the table. But if you’re able to recognize and work with those aspects, then alignment and flow will follow.

With the right marketing, those weaknesses can even be turned into strengths of their own.

By acknowledging weaknesses, you’re then able to find opportunities and contexts where they can be of greater use. It’s product-market fit, and lateral thinking with withered technology, applied to people.

Marketing is the act of creating and communicating meaning. A weakness can be turned into a marketable strength by weaving a narrative that transforms what it means.

Take the example of Milton Erickson, the influential psychiatrist and psychologist. When he was 17 he contracted polio. Paralyzed throughout his entire body except his eyeballs, he was confined to bed for months on end. This didn’t stop his medical career. It forced him to observe people’s behaviors more closely. Day after day he watched his eight siblings interact, picking up the subtleties and nuances in their mannerisms. Soon he became an unrivaled master in perceiving body language and nonverbal communication, from which he built his career.

Not only did he turn his initial weakness into a competitive advantage, he turned it into a marketing hook in itself. He spun a captivating narrative throughout the rest of his career, never failing to recount stories of when he was paralyzed in bed as a youngster.

He wasn’t just a psychologist. He was the once-paralyzed psychologist who overcame life-threatening polio. He wove a narrative that set him apart from the crowd. And that made him remarkable.

Josh Wolfe, another participant and speaker at Capital Camp, has alluded to this previously. “Progress comes from change. And change comes from discontent,” he says. “That source of discontent? It might come from childhood, tragedy or troubles, rivalry or revenge, a grudge, a quest to disprove doubters…the bad stuff can often lead to the good stuff.”

Helping people to take that bad stuff and turn it into good stuff is leadership alchemy of the highest order. It takes their discarded, neglected assets and transforms their meaning into gold.

Just like the baby back.


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