The 4 Principles of Great Leader-Chefs


I recently had the opportunity to watch a wonderful independent movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” – a must see for anyone interested in food, the artistic process, or leadership. It focuses on a Michelin-starred 80+ year old sushi chef who runs a tiny restaurant in the basement of an office building that people wait months for the pleasure of eating at.

One person that figures prominently in the documentary is a food critic who, when asked what makes Jiro such a masterful chef, produces a bullet list of reasons that I found intriguing.

Paraphrasing from memory, they were something like:

  • He has achieved a level of mastery, but is always trying to improve
  • He is a stickler for cleanliness
  • He knows what he wants
  • He is impatient

Even without watching the film, if you’ve seen any of the myriad of cooking shows running on cable these days, you’ll recognize this collection of personality traits as common to all great chefs. The reason I found the list intriguing is because of its general applicability to not just chefs, but leaders in any field. Take a moment and run any great leader you can think of through this checklist – Steve Jobs, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. They all exhibit these ideals.

I recently started reading “Unusually Excellent” by John Hamm. In his model, the first dimension of leadership is credibility, and the second is competence. Mastery of one’s domain is that unique blend of these two dimensions – a demonstration of competence that leads directly to credibility. A master chef could never ask or order a member of his crew to do some menial work without it being clear that he could just as easily accomplish it should the need arise. A lieutenant on the ground had better be able to aim and shoot. And a tech lead had better be able to design, code and debug a solution. But that isn’t enough. The true leader is always “sharpening the saw” as Stephen Covey said – not just practicing what he knows but also challenging the prevailing assumptions and trying to improve both his practice of his craft as well as the definition of the craft itself. In chefdom, you’ll see the great chefs exploring things like molecular gastronomy, hyper-local ingredients and other cutting edge themes. Mastery is not an end state – it is a state of mind.

In the kitchen, cleanliness isn’t just about avoiding contamination by other food or bacteria. It’s also about keeping your mis-en-place, or as I like to translate it “keeping your shit together.” To use a term I learned when training as a leader in the military, it’s the “attention to detail” that someone who has achieved mastery naturally uses to discover and discern the small problems that could grow into big ones if left unchecked. Hygiene is physical, mental, and emotional, and true leaders have internalized it as a habit.

When a sous chef has a question, have you ever seen a great chef stop and think? This is not to say leaders should not be thoughtful, but great leaders are not afraid to take action, and then correct course later if it turns out they were wrong. Of course, this relies on a certain level of competency to work, but true leaders are great because they know what they know, have a clear vision, and only stop to think when the decision being made represents a fresh challenge. This kind of long term thinking takes place before the heat of battle, and the leaders always enter into the fray with a clear vision of what it is they want to accomplish.

It’s often said that leaders remove roadblocks. If they had a lot of patience, they would simply wait for the roadblocks to clear themselves, which often happens. True leaders don’t wait. They push forward, they push their team to explore their limits, they are always striving for the next level. In the kitchen, if one team member is not keeping up at their station, the chef doesn’t slow down the whole line – he reallocates the team to get the line working smoothly again, and he does this without hesitation or apology. After the shift is over, he’ll address the underlying problem. If a new dish is not meeting expectations, he’ll pull it from the menu immediately, not wait until the shift ends or the supply of ingredients runs out. The true leader is always of the opinion “Why wait?”

If you are a leader or aspiring to be one – take these lessons from the master chefs to heart. If you are a follower, use them as a guide to evaluate your leaders. If they come up short, take action by embracing these principles yourself to become a leader, or find another leader who lives and breathes them.


One Reply to “The 4 Principles of Great Leader-Chefs”

  1. Just had a chance to re-watch the film and jot down the actual list of attributes listed there. For the record, they are: 1) They take their work very seriously, and consistently perform at the highest level, 2) They aspire to improve their skills, 3) Cleanliness, 4) Impatience – Stubborn and insist on having their way, and 5) Passionate. Obviously, passion is important for leaders as well – you can’t fake passion and without it, your followers will quickly fall by the wayside.

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