After a hard day of work, you probably don't feel like cooking (which is why the neighborhood Chinese restaurant will never go out of business).
But if you want to improve your leadership skills, there's no better way than making dinner on a weeknight. Why? The discipline of creating an appealing, nourishing meal in a limited amount of time is more effective training than any executive MBA program or company-sponsored course.
An important note here: I'm not referring to cooking you do for amusement on the weekend. My husband, for example, makes great barbecued ribs. But his ribs are a Project with a capital P. He first has to channel his muse. Make a special trip to the store for the right ingredients. Spend hours fiddling with sauce, ribs, oven and grill. Finally, he serves his creation with a flourish to spirited applause and five stars on Yelp. (Come to think of it, P also stands for Performance.)
But performance cooking doesn't build leadership skills. Instead, you need the same attributes that make you successful at weeknight meal preparation: You walk in the door at 6 p.m. By 6:45, your family is sitting down to dinner with real, homemade food on their plates: some combination of a protein, a vegetable and a starch. They tell you it's delicious and eat every morsel.
- Plan ahead. Unless you live in Paris (and can stop at the boulangerie every evening on your way home from work), you need to set yourself up for success ahead of time. That means having a general scheme for the week (Monday, chicken; Tuesday, pasta; etc.) and acquiring key ingredients in advance. Strong leaders are effective planners.
- Work with what you have. Thinking ahead is essential, but, as they say in the army, no plan survives contact with the enemy. You were going to make stir fry, but the broccoli has gone bad. Your significant other has to run out for a parent-teacher meeting, so you only have 15 minutes to prepare, not 30. Deal with it. Make couscous (ready in five minutes!) instead of spaghetti. Declare tonight "breakfast for dinner" and start scrambling eggs. The best leaders are nimble.
- Enjoy the process. You're standing at the stove for a reason--dinner by 7--but being focused doesn't mean you can't have fun. Turn on your favorite music. (Meghan Trainor, anyone?) Whip those eggs like your mean it. Spice up that chili. The most passionate leaders love their work.
- Laugh at mishaps. My meatloaf recipe is a family favorite. But one evening I decided to shake it up. My brilliant idea? Southwestern meatloaf made with salsa and jalapenos. The result? It was purple, it had a weird consistency and it tasted . . . "interesting." We all laughed and ate chips with melted cheese. The most effective leaders don't take themselves too seriously.
- Celebrate success. It's easy to focus so much on the process that you forget to take a moment and enjoy what's been achieved. But a good meal is worth savoring. Persuasive leaders take time to praise good work and celebrate accomplishments.