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Barbecue and Leadership

(Note - this article, authored by myself, was originally published in 'UK BBQ Mag' in Spring 2019 (p.66). Whilst this publication no longer continues it has been replaced by BBQ Magazine, please check out their website for more details and opportunity to subscribe to this publication which unlike its predecessor is now in print. The original article can be found here.)

Leadership and barbecue share many things in common. For one each term has as many definitions as there are people who have attempted to define them; with the debate about the definition of each being hotter than a searing grill in summer. This article highlights various leadership attributes and values that in the author’s view has a correlation with being a pitmaster. Whether this in your back garden with your family, for a large party, catering as part of a business or even as a competition barbecue team. I’ve topped it off with a vignette from a friend of mine, a back yard pitmaster, who learnt a lot about himself, leadership, and his team by putting on a barbecue for them.

Teamwork makes the pit work. Delivering a successful barbecue to any large number of people requires team work, and as a result effective leadership to ensure its success. Leading a team that delivers a successful barbecue demonstrates the ability to organise, train, task, delegate, monitor, coach, mentor, motivate and ensure the output is on time and of the quality required. All done with safety and hygiene in mind. It also involves thinking to the finish. Once the food is served it is not the end of the barbecue as there is all the closedown, disposal of live coals, washing up and putting away. This can be a challenging leadership situation as the team is probably less interested and motivated by this point!

Pitmaster and Provider. The effort required to arrange a large barbecue event in terms of cost, resources, time and investment, connected to the act of providing for others, can be an effective and powerful leadership trait. If followers being served barbecue recognise that it is their leader that has taken a significant role in its provision, then the association is a positive leadership attribute for them and the leader and their leadership style, especially if the barbecue is used for reward or recognition from the leader to the team. This all creates memories for the team that has meaning attached, which is then associated with the leader, the rest of the team and the event (as well as the food too hopefully!). The British Army’s Officer training academy, Sandhurst, that excels in leadership has ‘Serve To Lead’ as its motto. A leader serving barbecue to their team is a sign that they have provided them with nourishment, entertainment, a sense of occasion and a social event for team bonding and cohesion. This theme of ‘providing’ is something Christian Stevenson, aka DJ BBQ, brought up in an interview with the ‘Looking Sideways’ podcast. In his previous life as an extreme sports film producer, DJ BBQ was keen that the guys he was with on the road filming ate a decent meal and not junk food. So he would cook them barbecue and teach them how to do it. Who wouldn’t want be part of that team?! The mere act of a leader physically being the person serving the food to their team can be quite a powerful image. Think Barack Obama and David Cameron serving barbecue to invited guests at 10 Downing Street, which regardless of your political views was a pretty powerful message to send by two world leaders at the time. Of course, the combination of barbecue and politics is not new, certainly in American culture and history. The act of serving barbecue to prospective voters as part of an election campaign was popular in the US from as early as George Washington’s era (interestingly, in one of George Washington’s campaign events in 1758 he gave out 28 gallons of rum, 34 gallons of wine and 46 gallons of strong beer, all for a constituency that had only 391 registered voters!). This was not merely to ‘bribe’ voters, but a reason for assembling people in one place where candidates could make addresses, plea for votes and demonstrate the ability to provide and serve their subjects.

Being a doer as well as thinker. Planning and serving a barbecue also demonstrates a bias for action. It shows you can be a ‘doer’ as well as a ‘thinker’. It takes logic, rational thought and time to plan and co-ordinate a barbecue for a large group. As such it demonstrates you can make decisions, work to a budget, plan and sequence activities in time and space, all to a deadline. This can be even more challenging as barbecues are not usually in an area that is set up as a kitchen, which may involve no running water, improper preparation surfaces, exposure to the elements and different hygiene and safety considerations to a kitchen.

Innovation, creativity and setting the example. In addition to demonstrating planning and co-ordination, leaders can also use barbecue to demonstrate other leadership traits. Those with a passion for barbecue can exhibit innovation and creativity, not just in terms of the menu choices but how they go about overseeing the barbecue as an event. For example, a leader could get their own team to conduct the preparation and cooking as team activity outside their usual line of work (this clearly has less utility for teams who already cook barbecue!). This is exactly what my friend did in the example I describe later. This activity also allows the leader to demonstrate their other leadership qualities such as humility and humbleness, like doing menial jobs around the team as they prepare and cook the barbecue. For example, clearing tables, taking out rubbish and washing up, all of which enables their team to get on with the task at hand. In this example it means the leader is better off not being the chef or the server, and not putting themselves the centre or focus of the activity. This empowers others to take these roles and responsibilities and allows the leader to take a more orbital approach to leadership and not the centre of attention. It still, however, sets an example to the team by being prepared to get stuck in. All qualities that demonstrate good leadership and will earn the leader respect.

Cohesion and bonding. The positive aspects of a barbecue as an informal team occasion in a social setting are widely acknowledged in many public and private organisations but it is worth considering why? For those attending the event the informal setting allows all parts of the team to interact in a way that their usual team environment (e.g. workplace, office) might not lend itself. New bonds are formed and the team comes away with a separate meaning and memory of their team outside their usual environment. This sense of belonging is one of the most underrated and important aspects of motivation and teamwork that is very effective if leaders are able to appropriately harness it. The more meaning the leader can put into the occasion the more it will resonate with the team; imagine the sort of barbecue that David Brent from ‘The Office’ would put on as an example of how not to do it!

Communication and harnessing potential. Another advantage of team barbecues is that leadership in the organisation has a chance to interact and better understand the issues that affecting other parts of the team. A really useful communication channel in any team, especially large or hierarchical ones. For those delivering the barbecue (if it is not a catered event) there is also the opportunity for people who works in separate parts of the team to work together and interact on a task (as previously mentioned), forming new relationships in the team. In this team activity there is also an opportunity for the leader (and wider team) to spot talent among team members that they might not have known existed beforehand, and allow leaders to identify and harness individual’s potential. Who knew for example that the guy from IT was able to hold his own in a fast-paced cooking environment as he co-ordinated the final stages of cooking? Or that the quiet new girl on an internship was such a lively, witty and engaging people-person as she served the team them their food?

Inclusivity. This is now being identified as key to leadership in almost every leadership environment. Barbecue is well suited to being an inclusive activity as it does not preclude any background or individual (although unfortunately there are occasional examples of this). Barbecue is arguably one of the best ways of breaking down barriers and promoting inclusivity between individuals and groups. It can cater for all and every difference and bring together people from all backgrounds whether race, politics, religion, ethnicity, socio-demographic status, lifestyle or food preference. As long as it is done in a sensitive and understanding manner.

What one person learned about barbecue and leadership

A friend of mine was asked to host a barbecue for the team at work that he leads after they found out he was really into barbecue, in all there were around 45 attendees. There was no way he was going to be able to prepare, cook and serve the barbecue in the small timeframe given, so he knew he was going to have to get a team together to help him. Among his team, who were in fact a company of soldiers in the British Army, there were very few, if any, who had cooked before let alone done it on a live fire. Boil-in-the-bag rations, Pot Noodles and the great British pastime of burning sausages and burgers on a disposable barbecue on summer weekend, was probably the closest these soldiers had ever got to cooking.

My friend had to carefully plan the menu so it was cost effective, healthy, easy to teach others to cook, and most importantly it had to be more interesting than any barbecue his soldiers would have had before (he had his barbecue credentials to demonstrate here after all!). He asked me for some menu ideas and I suggested a kofta version of the minced lamb burgers I had done previously, served with a flatbread, loads of grilled vegetables and cous cous. This would make a cheap and healthy option, with the substitution of grilled halloumi instead of lamb for any vegetarians. He then had to plan in detail how the preparation and cooking was going to be done with military precision, which was lucky for him being in the Army. The location was outside a classroom with only a sink and a kettle available inside, and would involve soldiers who had never cooked before using knives and live fires, not to mention the requirement for a quick education on food hygiene.

The event was a huge success. The food turned out fantastic, all enjoyed it and my friend was even more pleased that he had led the team in providing for each other. He had not been in charge of his team for long but saw this as a key part of his leadership style and acumen that he achieved early on that demonstrated many things to both his team and himself. Here’s a summary of what he learnt:

Teaching, coaching and mentoring. He had taught people who knew nothing about cooking and barbecue how to prepare, cook and serve to fellow team members. This meant mentoring and coaching throughout, whether it was how to knead dough for the flatbreads, chop vegetables, use the hotter and colder sides of the grill, educating them on cooking to temperature and how to prevent the food from burning.

Motivation. Most of the team were volunteers, some probably out of curiosity, and the two poor souls manning the grill outside under a gazebo in the rain had just happened to be walking past before being tasked with being the grill chefs! An autocratic Hell’s Kitchen routine for motivation was unlikely to have worked in this situation, and isn’t my friends leadership style anyway. But he got the sense that his passion and drive for barbecue had inspired (again possibly out of curiosity!) those to turn up before the others and prepare a feast for them. This was him using his character as a projection of his leadership style to motivate and inspire his team to do things they hadn’t done before or knew they could do.

Teamwork. He had galvanised the team around a task, provided direction, and then let them get on with it. In the meantime he handed out drinks, prepared condiments and set out the cutlery. When the remainder of the team arrived to eat they were somewhat taken aback that their own colleagues had produced such wonderful food for the rest of the team. The closedown of the occasion was seamless and happened without direction, everyone knew what had to be cleared away and washed up and it just happened.

Application of leadership and barbecue.

Although this vignette is an example of barbecue and leadership in a military context, it is not a scene unique to the military (no one was shooting at them whilst barbecuing and they were not in a war zone!). So there is application to other leadership environments whether they be commercial, government, religious, non-governmental (e.g. charity) or in competition barbecue.

As part of my master’s dissertation into sustainability and barbecue, the word ‘people’ was mentioned more times in interviews than any other word. And just like barbecue, leadership is all about people. A focus on people, whether in barbecue or leadership, is a sure recipe for success. Investing in people was the success to my friend’s barbecue with his team. Making people and the team the focus of any barbecue, from the enjoyment and conviviality to the informal relationships and networked communication channels, can be an effective leadership attribute. It is not the food, the barbecue, the event or the occasion that matters, it is the people…it’s all about the people.


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