Lessons of leadership in a pot of soup
February 13, 2018 7:01 AM   Subscribe

An unpleasant experience at a cooking event has me reflecting on leadership lessons I may be missing. Can you help me figure out what they are? (Long anecdote inside.)

So I’m trying to sort out a situation that I’ve been in multiple times, that may point to where my leadership skills are lacking.

In the most recent instance, I was at a food event about locally, grown sustainable produce. The guest speaker had laid out a part of her presentation where the attendees would cook a vegetable soup. She brought all the produce, laid out a bunch of knives and cutting boards, a stock pot, a jug of vegetable stock and a single burner. No meat, so it was probably as fool-proof as events like this go.

No one seemed to really want to step into being in charge, I’m not sure out of cluelessness or shyness, so I started directing people. I’ve cooked before, I hate seeing this great local produce wasted by cooking it poorly, and I know enough to at least to saute the onion and garlic first, and add the vegetables in order of cooking time, so I stepped into the fray.

Now here’s where it got complicated: We were generally strangers, so I didn’t know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses or base of knowledge, and everyone wanted to do something. It’s a natural human tendency, people want to participate and be stimulated. I was able to direct this energy fairly well, by just giving them something to chop.

I got started with the burner, pot and oil, sautéing the garlic and onion, careful not to burn it, and then people started coming around with their vegetables. They were generally inexperienced in the kitchen, so many of them just wanted to throw what they had just chopped into the pot, like we were making a bowl of cookie batter. My air of knowledgeableness helped to stymie this instinct, and things were going ok.

I was still trying to think about the general flavor profile I wanted to go for, what spices to use, what order to use them and when to use them, when the bowls of chopped vegetables started piling up.

I had a brief, friendly exchange with one participant, who at some point in the conversation, jauntily answered me with “I don’t know, I guess you’re in charge — you’re the guy with the spoon” — which I was using to stir the pot.

I didn’t think that was a big deal, so I offered him the chance to stir the pot — perhaps too willing to share responsibility, perhaps unsure of myself, perhaps too eager to defer to a greater authority.

It was soon evident that he had absolutely no idea of what he was doing, stirring too aggressively, and he began tossing in things willy nilly, without regard to order or combination of flavors. He was a carefree, naturally charismatic type, and I realized I may have mistook that confidence for authority.

I realize too that he seemed to be the type also takes to authority and power easily, naturally interested in the perks (the spoon in this case) without considering the responsibilities.

The stakes here didn’t seem high enough to push him aside, but I put my hand to my forehead as I considered what I’d done, and even more so, after he asked others to taste the soup — and they grimaced at the nasty overly-spiced mess he had made.

I made it clear to the others that this disaster was no longer my doing. But this experience gave me a lot to think about.

Earlier, I liked the respect from being in charge, and I liked the prospect of using knowledge that no one else had to direct a team of strangers to create a beautiful product.

However, I quickly gave this up when someone else offered the prospect of making a more beautiful product, or at least offered the prospect of making my efforts pale in comparison. I didn’t feel justified being aggressive in keeping my position of leadership, and handed over my spoon/scepter to him.

But it turned out he wasn’t any better of a leader and would likely make a worse product. He only took up the reins after I’d taken the scary step when no one wanted to, and got the ball rolling. He only became leader because he wanted to wield the spoon/scepter.

It turns out I’d been in this situation before, a few years earlier, on a camping trip with strangers, and again, I was thoughtfully trying to assemble a stew with a bunch of strangers, and another carefree alpha male type stepped in, attracted by power, but bringing little knowledge, and again, tossing stuff together without regard, confident it would be ok in the end.

And yet, I could think of one more time before that, when I was at some sort of scavenger hunt with a group of strangers, and again, I stepped up to bring order to the effort when no one wanted to. That time, I held on to authority too tightly, gave orders too firmly, and the effort at the end was a bust as well — but worse, I was completely responsible, and no one was happy with me.

I even think about the time when I was in grade school, and was given a position with a few others to keep watch on the kindergarteners. That time, I erred on the side of agreeableness. We were supposed to get the kids into formation, but seeing that we had enough time, I opted to play with them to get them in position through friendliness, rather than barking direct orders at them -- but that made one of my teammates very cross with me.

For what it’s worth, both the soup and the stew turned out ok in the end, but only after the alpha male realized he’d be tagged with the screw-up and tried to bail, handing it off to a third party capable of some creative intervention.

Even then, I feel like if I’d been able to be in charge from start to finish, the product would have been better.

I feel like I’m missing a lesson of leadership here, that may even be applicable to my career. You’re given a bunch of strangers and a task. You think you know have the expertise to complete that task, but you don’t want to be too firm in directing your team.

You also don’t want to give up your power to those who may be attracted by its perks, but an even worse fate seems to be to fail the task because you were reluctant to give up power.

How do you negotiate such a situation? Is it to continue with the confidence that you’re the best man for the job, even if you might not be? Is it not to aim for the perfection you may be able to achieve, let the alpha male step in and have confidence that the product will be at least passable in the end?

The lines may be clearer in a professional situation, and you may be justified in holding onto power more tightly there because just you’re not going to give your title and bigger paycheck to someone who acts like he knows what he’s doing, and you’ll know the capabilities of your team a little better.

But I think there are still lessons of leadership to be learned in situations like these — especially since I’ve screwed them up a few times already. What do you think they are?

By way of additional info: I am a small, well-educated, non-white, and male. I lean towards the introverted end of the scale, but I am pretty personable. I don't ambitiously pursue power, but I will step into positions of leadership to fill the gap when no one else will in order to take responsibility. Maybe that's my problem -- my disposition?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think the best thing you can do is chill out. You're talking about having "leadership" and "power" at parties and camping trips. That's not how social events work. All of the scenarios you've described are of so little consequence in the grand scheme of things, and it sounds like you're regarding them with way more importance than they actually have. So what if the soup doesn't turn out great? So what if you don't win the scavenger hunt? If you're participating in what's essentially a social event, the goal is that everyone has a good time, not that you make a Gordon Ramsay-level pot of soup.
posted by kitty teeth at 7:15 AM on February 13 [50 favorites]


So your examples involve a soup, a stew, a scavenger hunt, and getting little kids into "formation." Perhaps you have a habit of unnecessarily raising the stakes in inconsequential situations, and sucking the fun out of it for everyone? All this talk of power and scepters seems more than a little ridiculous.
posted by jon1270 at 7:18 AM on February 13 [26 favorites]


You seem like you may be completely missing the point of some of these things. No one cared if the soup was any good in the end. The point was the process, and people working together, and having fun, and you ruined that with what you perceived as leadership. What comes out at the end is not the actual goal in many situations, and I think it would serve you well to pay attention to when that is the case.

I also think you may not notice more subtle leadership - it sounds like you may steamroll over other people who are leading just fine without needing to feel so obviously in charge. Or who are happy in situations with no obvious leader - not every situation or group of people needs one! Really!
posted by brainmouse at 7:28 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]


"The guest speaker .... She brought all the produce ..." "No one seemed to really want to step into being in charge, I’m not sure out of cluelessness or shyness, so I started directing people." "How do you negotiate such a situation? Is it to continue with the confidence that you’re the best man for the job ..."

You were in a situation where the female leader and organizer, apparently, did not want to create a hierarchical thing. You decided that somebody should be in charge, and that you were the best man for the job. Another dude challenged you for that role.

Seems to me like these are the clues to the most important lesson you might learn from this.
posted by sheldman at 7:29 AM on February 13 [47 favorites]


It seems to me like you're taking on a lot of responsibility for all of these projects when they were given to a group. I agree with you that in such cases, it's best if someone takes the lead. As an introvert taking responsibility (a role I know well) you've been working to find the right level of engagement/push to give, and to be honest, giving the dude the spoon when he seemed to want to do spoon stuff was probably the right move. Nobody put you in charge but you (for good reasons, for the good of the project etc) and you recognise that by not wanting to push things too far.

For the future....if you do want to step up again in these group situations, I'd recommend more being the "big mouth" and getting everyone together at the start to say "Ok guys does anyone have any desire to project manage this (or whatever words you feel comfortable using)?" Then perhaps you could feel that you could limit your responsibility feeling to getting the conversation going between anyone who seems interested in working in a team, deciding on jobs etc.

Also: have you always felt the need to take responsibility (or to give a fuck when it's not your turn to give a fuck)? Might be worth looking at that more...it has been for me! I still can't sit back and let things all turn to a shambles though!
posted by london explorer girl at 7:29 AM on February 13 [6 favorites]


In many casual group settings, part of the fun is in sharing responsibility and shifting roles and duties to make sure everyone has a chance to try different things. The end product may not be ideal as a result, but having the best possible output is not really the goal. I think you did a great job in stepping up when no one else would, and I think you also did a great job in giving someone else a shot when they seemed ready. It's different of course in a professional or competitive situation, but in a casual situation, having varied and interesting interaction among the participants is the whole point.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:29 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I got only halfway through the story about the soup before I realized your problem: not realizing when the situation does not actually call for that kind of take-charge attitude.

I speak from experience, too. That kind of "someone has to take charge" thing is also my jam, and there are certain situations where it's called for - like when I'm at work, or when I was a stage manager. In a situation like that, you do need someone to step up and take charge, because that is a much more serious situation where a lot of people are relying on leadership to get a very complicated thing off the ground.

But...a bunch of people making theater is not even remotely like getting together with a bunch of people and making vegetable soup. And I've learned that when I applied my "someone has to take charge" attitude to a situation that didn't call for it, I just ended up pissing people off. It took me a while to realize that there are times when you can chill out a little (a couple of actor friends, actually, talked to me about this in non-theater situations - "look, sweetie, we know you're a great stage manager, but this isn't theater right now, this is just ordering drinks for a group of people.")

I get the "someone has to take charge" thing - I have that instinct too - but there are times when you don't need to use it. I would work on recognizing when you don't need to take charge like this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:31 AM on February 13 [16 favorites]


I... honestly have no idea why the guest speaker would have done this? Like, genuinely baffled over here. I know that isn't what you asked, but how was this event intended to go, and what was it for?
posted by halation at 7:32 AM on February 13 [22 favorites]


The lessons here aren't applicable to a work situation because the goals are different. Socializing for fun has a different goal set than a work project.

You did fine handing over the spoon. The goal was for people to do a fun activity together. Now, the other guy, to my mind (I take seasoning seriously :) ) shouldn't have added stuff to the pot without checking with someone who knows what they're doing; but the point of the event wasn't to make the best soup, it was to have the friendliest event. So telling the guy "YOU SUCK AT SOUP BACK OFF" would have been contrary to the goal, even though he did suck at soup, and I would have been annoyed too.

But at work, if the junior paralegal thinks it would be fun to take first chair at trial, well, nobody is going to let him, because that is not his job, and the goal, which is to win the case, would fail. Nobody would think it was kind or cute or friendly to give someone unqualified the "power" to do work they're not qualified to do when the outcome matters.

The thing with the scavenger hunt illustrates another point, which is that people will blame whoever visibly takes leadership responsibility for whatever bad results happens, whether it is their fault or not. (There's a proverb about it, I forget how it goes, something about standing up too tall and having one's head scythed off. Or maybe it has to do with lightning rods. Same thing.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:51 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Now, the other guy, to my mind (I take seasoning seriously :) ) shouldn't have added stuff to the pot without checking with someone who knows what they're doing; but the point of the event wasn't to make the best soup, it was to have the friendliest event.

This, and a group of reasonable people at an event can and probably will disagree about what the point of the event is.
posted by clavicle at 7:54 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]


...I opted to play with them to get them in position through friendliness, rather than barking direct orders at them -- but that made one of my teammates very cross with me.

I think you took the wrong lesson from this so many years ago. It's not your friendliness to the little kids that was the problem per se. Leaving aside the question of why anyone thought that was a good task for kids in the first place, the adult equivalent would simply be "Hey, team, there's enough time that we could play a bit first, and I that'd help the kids warm up to us and make everything easier than trying to make them stay in their places the whole time. What do you all think?" Same deal with the soup: you got all focused on your goals for the flavor profile and keeping the vegetables from being "wasted" that it became your project, rather than a true group effort. If the others had been collaborators, including the guy who wanted the spoon, it would have diffused the "need" for a power play and meant that the others would have also objected to someone obvious steering the team off course.

However, I'd also agree that it seems like you must have missed something from the guest speaker. Surely her plan wasn't just to hand out knives and let random participants go at it? If anything, it seems like the role you claimed should have been hers, since the participants were already cued to follow her authority and the ingredients were all her choices. In the future, if you feel like you suddenly have too much responsibility, look around and think about if you might have accidentally grabbed it away from someone else.
posted by teremala at 7:55 AM on February 13 [20 favorites]


I'm trying to figure out what happened to the guest speaker. Did she just lay out the stuff and then vanish into thin air?

I was still trying to think about the general flavor profile I wanted to go for, what spices to use, what order to use them and when to use them, when the bowls of chopped vegetables started piling up.

I can understand you feeling a need to tell people that they can start chopping vegetables if they're hesitant. I don't understand why you felt it was up to you to decide on what flavor profile you wanted and what spices to use. If you look at the way you worded this (and maybe you didn't quite mean it this way), you've gone from trying to get things rolling for everyone to acting as if the other participants are your assistants as you create your culinary masterpiece. And I also wonder what the point of this exercise was - maybe it was that people can just sort of wing it and make a passable soup. It doesn't sound like it was supposed to be Top Chef.

Now, if the guest speaker didn't vanish, you could have asked her for direction and found out what she wanted you guys to do. Because from the way you describe this situation, there already was someone in charge. (And I'm with sheldman in feeling like the gender issues here should not be ignored - you specify that you're male, so I don't think you're oblivious to that - but I think you need to think about it a little more.)

Maybe the next time you're in this kind of social situation, you could try resisting the idea that you need to take over and just sit back and see how other people handle it. You want to learn something from this - and that would be a good way to do it.
posted by FencingGal at 8:38 AM on February 13 [17 favorites]


I agree with earlier remarks about whether this is really a leadership situation, but I'll bite.

Leaders inspire people to move towards a common goal.

I don't think you were in a position to take a leadership role, unless you understood the goal. What was the goal of this event? To make the best flavour profiled soup, or to socialize, or to teach cooking skills, or to "respect" the produce? Because those are incredibly different goals.

If you were going to take a leadership role, the first thing to do would have been to turn to the facilitator and say "how would you like the soup making to go and how can I help?"

Then once you know the goal, you inspire people towards it.

This is where I think you have a sense you are going wrong with your questions about "what's more important, the product or the people making it?" Really your goals should inform this area but leaders, as opposed to managers, inspire others to do things, whether "the thing" is "get better at soup making" (in which case failure is actually probably almost required) or "produce the best soup ever" (in which case you need to focus on the capacities of your team and articulating goals to the team itself, as well as process, like "only add a small amount of salt at a time and taste."

So if you wanted to create a great soup-making team you would focus on getting to know the people in the group and their proficiency level and then on talking about planning this great soup. You would not take over and start stirring.

I made it clear to the others that this disaster was no longer my doing

This is not leadership, at all. There are times in your life you have to make sure that you haven't been scapegoated but a soup-making evening isn't it. But a leader really lifts other people up, even when mistakes are made.

Leaders can also hold people accountable for the success of something, but this is really a specialized area of leadership and not something you want to do lightly. Real leaders inspire those around them to achieve something - in this case an appreciation of locally grown produce maybe? If people come away from this seminar feeling like they can't cook and the soup was a disaster then that's pretty awful! They could come away with the sense that it was a disaster but I'll try it again.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:39 AM on February 13 [16 favorites]


I was trying to figure out how to phrase this nicely but uh.... who died and appointed you king of the group?

Every scenario you describe has you stepping in and bossing people around when you have no actual authority over them (even when an actual authority is present!) and now you're asking us how to get better at being a little dictator because you've decided that nobody else is qualified. I don't see any mention of the groups deciding you should be the leader - in fact, you complain about the opposite. You need to chill about always being in control and accept that sometimes other people will do things differently from you, and this is not always a sign that your "leadership" (which seems to mean just ordering people around) is needed.

And yes, please do consider the gender dynamics involved when some of the people you're viewing as "not taking charge" are women. Particularly since, considering what you seem to view as leadership in yourself, I'm not surprised that you aren't seeing women doing it. Consider the possibility that some - many! - situations don't actually require a benevolent dictator for things to flow smoothly.
posted by randomnity at 8:55 AM on February 13 [21 favorites]


Here's another pointer for you:

many of them just wanted to throw what they had just chopped into the pot, like we were making a bowl of cookie batter. My air of knowledgeableness helped to stymie this instinct, and things were going ok.

A good leader shares their knowledge and brings people up around them, they don't keep others in the dark in order to appear knowledgable and "stymie" people's instincts.

In your position, I would have explained what I knew about soupmaking to them. It would have hardly taken long - "I'm not an expert, but one thing I know about soup making is that you add the stuff first that's going to take the longest to cook, once you've got the onion base ready. So could you pick out the vegetable that we're cutting that's going to take the longest - the densest root maybe - and help get that ready? That's the one we'll want to put in first!"

It sounds like you were sort of trying to... keep them busy? while you worked your magic... rather than bring them together as a team who understood what they were doing and why it was important.
posted by greenish at 8:55 AM on February 13 [21 favorites]


You honestly sound exhausting. Now, I know how to cook soup, but if this part of the event was "communally cook soup" the important part wasn't the flavor profile you wanted, it was inclusiveness.

so I offered him the chance to stir the pot — perhaps too willing to share responsibility, perhaps unsure of myself, perhaps too eager to defer to a greater authority.

You're damning yourself with faint praise and missing the point. You shouldn't have offered a chance to stir the pot because there was no reason for you to be hogging the pot stirring in the first place. This is not an event that required leadership and you were in no position to take over to the extent that you did.
posted by lydhre at 9:01 AM on February 13 [11 favorites]


"I went to an event recently about local produce, and the guest speaker had arranged everything nicely and was talking to us about the vegetables when suddenly some guy got up and decided to take charge. He was being really strange and seemed really off-put by everyone trying to contribute. I felt really weird and left out. I tried to put my vegetables in the pot and the guy got kind of upset with me, saying something about the 'flavor profile' that I didn't quite understand. Then, some other guy got up there and got the spoon away from him and started directing the soup-making. The soup was terrible, and the first guy spent a lot of time loudly describing how it wasn't his fault. How can I avoid events like this in the future?"

"I was recently asked to organize a guest lecture on cooking with local produce. I was really excited, and I put together some vegetables and brought knives and cutting boards and spent a lot of time planning how the event would go. I love collaborative cooking, even though the end result isn't always the most delicious -- the event is more about the process than the product! But before I could get through that part of my discussion, some guy in the audience got up and started directing the production. I honestly could not tell whether he was hired by the organizers or if he was just some rogue person who thought I wasn't doing a good enough job. The event kind of got out of control at that point, because no one seemed to understand that I was still running it. I went home and felt terrible. How can I avoid other people taking over my events in the future?"

Dude, chill. I've had guys like you in the workshops I run. You're exhausting, full stop. You ruin the event for everyone by looking at it as some kind of weird power-play full of hidden dynamics. We're just talking about vegetables and making a sub-par soup, here. Not everything has to operate at maximum efficiency, not everything is going to be "perfect" according to your standards. If you want to run a soup-making workshop that goes differently, plan it yourself and make it a demonstration and not a collaborative effort.
posted by sockermom at 9:40 AM on February 13 [39 favorites]


I get the "someone has to take charge" thing - I have that instinct too - but there are times when you don't need to use it. I would work on recognizing when you don't need to take charge like this.

Yeah I am a control freak about a lot of things in real life (while better at sharing online where lines are very clearly demarcated) and my best lesson for me is realizing when it's time to step aside and let the process or some other goal than forever optimizing become what happens. Which is to say, people aren't going to blame me if group project goes wrong. They might priase me if it goes right but if they do, then I am probably doing the group project wrong if it's supposed to be a group project. So there are some situations--emergency management stuff, health crisis stuff--where barking orders is the way to go if you're a good leader. Most of the time you're just supposed to get people sort of "up for it" and more or less have them do a lot of the stuff themselves and come away feeling okay about the whole process.

So think about the goal state you are looking for (which might not be yours, think of the one for the group - I am with other people, I am confused about the soup example and I feel maybe like you created an approximate metaphor?) and then see if you can use your systems thinking to sort of help set the players in motion but don't worry so much about what they do once they'r going and try to use yours and other people's strengths to help keep the stuff on task. In a group project, ideally there are many people who lead different parts of the thing. Someone can sort of be a meta-leader in the situation but that persons efforts should be nearly transparent in the overall thing. Work on that.
posted by jessamyn at 10:13 AM on February 13 [5 favorites]


In an engineering discussion at a white board, what often happens is that one marker gets passed between people as they want to draw or write. Someone signals that they want to contribute by reaching for the pen that someone is holding. So, whoever doesn't hold the one marker gets silenced because they can't draw without a marker.

At this point, I pick up another marker and steer back to collaborative engagement (i.e. hand markers to everyone if need be). That can't really happen with a spoon to stir the pot - your physical presence/location blocked everyone around you from collaborating.

Frankly, being bossed around at a low-stakes event is irritating. I find that bossiness generally comes from a place of insecurity, because you're worried that people might find out you don't know something. You sound like you approach these events trying to establish your vision instead of trying to incorporate the group in creating a vision.

People who collaborate and who learn to take a back seat and really listen (instead of working from assumptions they make about the world) really get the best results.
posted by bookdragoness at 10:16 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


True leadership is about collaboration and facilitating success in others.

I feel that your nerves around stepping up and fear of failure (are you anxious on general? You sound like you might be) is blinding you to this, leaving you second guessing all interactions and inappropriately psychoanalysing things.

Being a leader doesn't mean making all the decisions, it's about empowering others and the group to make their own decisions and working towards consensus (consensus doesn't mean everyone agrees; it can mean everyone agrees to a path forwards even if they disagree).

You should have been passing that spoon around buddy, asking people what flavours they like, what order they think it should be cooked in and why, and then asked the group what they think.

You are nervous about your leadership, and rightly so: what did people learn from the activity, how do you think they felt after? This was not on spoon guy. The reality is, you were spoon guy in this case.

Finally, you don't always, or even mostly have to step up. It's not a failure, and if your activity doesn't pan out, that's also not a failure.

"taking charge" is generally not what true leadership looks or sounds like. Best of luck buddy, don't be so hard on yourself and others.
posted by smoke at 1:04 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]


One way in which you might have misread the room: you seem to have taken the statement “I don’t know, I guess you’re in charge — you’re the guy with the spoon” at face value. Maybe that *is* what the guy meant, but just reading the words and the situation, I actually gasped at the strength of the shade being thrown and was astonished that the story continued with you agreeing with the literal interpretation of what he said and going so far as to talk about enjoying the power of the spoon.

Spoon Power isn't a thing. He might have been teasing you about how seriously you were taking a job that wasn't one.

In the situations you describe, you seem really focused on the tangible final product. As folks upthread have mentioned, that's not the only goal a group can have. Were people smiling at the end of class? Did they make new friends? It might be instructive to let some cheerful chaos happen around you the next time you're in that kind of situation, and observe the different ways that different people engage with the same situation. I've taught some classes that are more on the casual end like this, and different people can have quite different goals. The lecturer's goal might not have had anything to do with the soup.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:15 PM on February 13 [14 favorites]


The best leaders I know inspire, delegate, only help when asked to directly, and sort of benevolently witness their team succeed.
posted by kapers at 1:51 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Yeah, in the soup anecdote, I'm not sure why you felt compelled to micro-manage a public event you were attending. If you thought "No one seemed to really want to step into being in charge" and realized "I know enough to at least to saute the onion and garlic first" maybe you could have performed only that initial step, and left further proceedings to the guest speaker or the event's host.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:36 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]


Also, the idea of "alpha male" (one of your tags) is - to say the very least - not suitable for cooking in groups or for many other things. I would say in fact that it's unsuitable for everything. If you weren't using that phrase with self-mocking humor, just be aware that many people find it very unappealing to be around people who believe in that status and are striving for it. It is not the same thing as leadership, as comments above have explained well.
posted by sheldman at 3:34 PM on February 13 [10 favorites]


You're getting some chiding here, but I sympathize with you.

If I'm reading the entire soup anecdote correctly, I get the impression that the guest speaker wasn't really properly organized or experienced in guiding the process, or they would have gently stepped in before that point. We've all seen something like this happen with weak leadership where there isn't a system in place, and the process often devolves into a cluster-fork of well-intentioned and sometimes ill-informed suggestions vying for attention. (I usually quietly back away when this starts to happen).

Ideally, good leadership is collaborative and respectful in nature, but this kind of working relationship does not naturally evolve out of random chaotic situations, it evolves from a good leader nurturing a collaborative and respectful environment over time. It's a learning process.

(If you're implying that a confident incompetent guy taking control is a kinda metaphor for some political or corporate cultures, then I tend to agree).
posted by ovvl at 4:40 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Others have made a lot of good points. I'll add that if you have to take charge of a situation like this because nobody is stepping up, the right approach probably isn't to start directing the situation like you're the head chef and they're your servants. It's to organize the group and help empower them to make soup. Or, in other words, a leader doesn't generally "use knowledge that no one else has to direct a team of strangers to create a beautiful product." A leader helps figure out how to leverage the skills of their team as effectively as possible to create a beautiful product. It might be a different situation if you were actually an expert chef and your soup-making technical expertise was in fact the unique value you were adding to the team, but from the way you describe it that doesn't sound like the case at all.

So for example, if folks are just milling around doing nothing, instead of ordering people around, you can start by saying "ok, what kind of soup do people want to make with these ingredients?" and then brainstorming a list of soups with the group, maybe holding a poll on what soup from the list to make. Then follow up with, "ok, great, who here is experienced at making soup?" and then you have *those* people make the project plan and figure out what the steps are. Then your job is to make sure everybody else listens to them, that nobody is standing around without a job, etc. It's entirely possible to take charge and make things happen without being a dictator about it.
posted by phoenixy at 10:15 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]


A soft way to organize a group is to be the one who gently poses questions to the group to get a sense of what people are thinking. If people are kind of standing around blinking at each other you can say something like “How are we thinking we could start this off?” If people still aren’t sure how to proceed, maybe offer a few options and see if there’s consensus around one of them. Ask, listen, and repeat as necessary. Your role is to make space for consensus to happen.
posted by delight at 10:19 PM on February 13


OP, I hear you - this is something I have struggled with myself. I am someone who is naturally confident and good at organization, and efficiency is always a goal for me - I'm always looking for the best way to optimize a process. One of my least favorite things is when everyone just stands around, waiting for someone else to take charge. I am frequently the one who gets the ball rolling in such cases, both at work and in my personal life. This is a quality I like about myself for the most part.

However, it is fraught with social difficulties (particularly in my case, as a woman). Here are some of the lessons I've learned (some the hard way), in case they are helpful to you:

- Learn to separate the important cases from the unimportant ones. It is not important to jump in to optimize a communal soup making event. It is important to jump in to help with an emergency. Work events can go either way. The takeaway here is stop, evaluate whether the situation needs to be optimized/run efficiently, or whether the objective is to relax and have fun.

- If you do decide to lead, be a collaborative leader. Don't be the person who tells people what to do; be the person who gets everyone organized to come up with a plan together. Unless it's a life-threatening emergency, no one likes the former; everyone appreciates the latter.

- There is a lot of information out there about the difference between being a manager and a leader. There are times where being a manager is the right approach, but since that's not necessarily your issue, look at the difference between the two and see how you might obtain some stronger leadership skills.

- If you have a strong/dominant personality, be aware that it can have a chilling effect on others. It took me a long time to learn that what I thought of as suggestions to get the ball rolling could be taken as 'this is how we should proceed'. Learn to couch your language here - 'I think', 'open to suggestions', 'not married to this idea', 'throwing this out as a place to start' etc. And then check in with others. Give the introverts space to add their thoughts, and create a safe space for suggestions to bubble up. Please abandon the alpha male thinking completely. Nobody wants you to take on this role unless you're in the military.

Being a leader is not about wanting to have power over someone. Alpha males, or people who wish they could be alpha males, often think it's all about them. But true leadership is enabling others to moving towards a desired outcome - together. I hope this is helpful and I really hope some of the negativity above hasn't made you want to abandon leadership altogether. We need more thoughtful and collaborative leaders in the world! Good luck.
posted by widdershins at 8:34 AM on February 14 [4 favorites]


Alternatively, you could just have asked the presenter what she wanted you as a group, to do first.
posted by Enid Lareg at 5:47 PM on February 14 [3 favorites]


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