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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

4 Critical Business and Leadership Lessons from My Mother’s Kitchen [MUST READ]

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It is indeed true that our experiences are stored away somewhere in our brains.

When events pull the right trigger, experiences that are otherwise hibernating in our memories resurface with clarity and sometimes deep lessons.

This is because we look at them afresh, against the lens of all the knowledge and experience we acquired since they happened.

Such is my story.

I am the first of seven (five surviving) children of two teachers. A boy followed me before my first sister came.

My mum was very keen on healthy nutrition, from gardening to cooking, and partly because my parents wanted us to share all the domestic chores, irrespective of gender, I learnt how to cook early.

At 15 years of age, I could make a meal for my family. Those who understand the cuisine of southeastern Nigeria can appreciate what this means.

To clarify, I could pound fufu and make bitter-leaf soup. My mother taught me. She was as intentional as she was intense.

I was recently on vacation and had the opportunity to spend time with my children.

Owing to the experience I had in the kitchen growing up, I still cook for my family occasionally.

In fact, you should envy them if you like good food! My wife and I have carried on with the tradition of teaching our kids everything about the home because we see domestic chores as life skills that are gender agnostic.

Neither hunger nor flat tyres know gender. I ate delicious meals made by all my kids but the last who is still a kitchen apprentice.

While cooking with them last week, I recalled one of the things that happened during my cooking apprenticeship days under my mum.

I was still learning how to make the very revered bitter leaf soup, or so I thought. As far as my mum was concerned on this fateful day, training was over.

I had to make a pot of soup by myself, without supervision.

I can still recall her last words before she left the kitchen, “If you have been paying attention, you should be able to make something we can all eat. If you don’t make it well, I will preserve it for your daily consumption till you finish it.” That was not a threat. We did not have enough to waste.

Making bitter-leaf soup at that time was like setting up a mini (soup) factory. My mother wouldn’t allow you to go to the market to buy washed leaves.

Why? She always said she wasn’t sure of the quality (purity) of the water used for the (commercial) washing of bitter leaves. So, I went to the garden, plucked the leaves, and spread them under the sun for a measured length to enable them to wilt and harden a bit — this is to withstand the rigours of thorough washing.

I then washed and rinsed them gently till they were no longer too bitter to taste.

This is one of the arts in making the bitter-leaf soup, and with the benefit of hindsight, this is where I failed my exam on the day.

As an impatient teen, I washed and started tasting the leaves for bitterness so early that my palate became numb to bitterness, prompting me to add the leaves to the soup without enough washing.

Fast forward to dinner time, I knew I goofed because the soup I tasted was too bitter, even for a bitter-leaf soup.

No additional quantity of crayfish, salt, or fermented locust beans (ogili) could save me.

Even if I wasn’t sure, the huge sigh of disapproval my mum heaved when she tasted the soup was enough confirmation that the evening wouldn’t be as beautiful as my efforts.

When my dad was served his dinner, with my mum seated beside him, all I could do to risk-manage the situation was hide, eavesdrop, and wait.

I hoped to see the first signs of trouble early enough to prepare for a response.

Predictably, my dad did not get to the fifth swallow before he complained that the soup was bitter.

That was when the magic happened, so I am writing this piece.

My mum, with a voice laden with that irresistible compassion of a mother and that outrageously appealing tone of a wife, told my dad, “Yes! It is bitter indeed, but it is so because it was made by your little son, whose efforts, the taste of the soup bears false witness to.

“Nna eat o! ghaluba! I will make a special dish for you tomorrow.” My dear dad finished his meal in silence, or better still, endured his dinner to the end. When I showed up to get the plates, he praised me and gave me an N1 (One Naira note) for my great cooking, as it seemed.

My mum was like the factory manager who had more details about what made the soup bitter. She also knew that it was not because of poor effort.

All it took for my father to align with her was her simple explanation – our son made the meal; it is not the best, but we need to encourage him because he really put in the effort.

I have worked professionally for 26 years, and reflecting on this experience circa 35 years later drew my attention to some leadership lessons I want to share.

Goal alignment! If their goals, in the way they wanted to raise us, were at variance, there wouldn’t have been such an easy alignment.

Trust! If he did not trust my mum’s assessment and judgment, he wouldn’t have let sleeping dogs lie as easily as he did. He was a fierce disciplinarian who always established the difference between mistake, carelessness, and mischief. He punished mistakes and punished carelessness severely. Your homework is to imagine how he rewarded mischief. Good luck!

This matter will continue to rear its head in many hues. However, goal alignment and trust across the organization is simply sacrosanct. There is a certain level of success any organization can attain without these two factors but no organization can possibly reach its full potential without them.

Sincere effort! With the benefit of hindsight, my one-naira gift was neither a reward for culinary skills nor for excellent output. It was for showing up with sincere effort. There is hardly going to be a team of individuals with the same levels of output across all measures.

Some will be ahead of others and yet, under optimal conditions, the output from the team should be more than the sum of the individual outputs of its members. One scenario under which this is almost guaranteed is when each member of the team shows up daily with sincere effort.

The implications of this realization can be substantial. For instance, it means that in such a regulated industry as banking, which is where I work, when the s**t hits the ceiling, people are judged based on the sincerity of their efforts rather than the unfavorable outcomes of their best actions; on the quality of their decision-making process rather than just the outcome of those decisions. Not to do this is to willfully stifle innovation.

Sacrifice! As I pointed out earlier, I watched my dad endure his meal following which he rewarded me. I did not need any motivational speech to look after him each time I made a meal. He became that man who was never going to suffer in my hands again. It was not the one naira that did the magic. After all, I think that the money found its way back to my mum’s purse. It was the grace with which he bore my mistake. He made me look like a better version of my real self so that I could make myself become that better version. And I became a better cook indeed.

One could argue that I was stuck to him like a leech because he was my father and couldn’t walk away. But this is exactly where the lesson is. How often do we give up on people because we simply do not invest enough interest? Leadership is an unrelenting commitment to putting people in the best possible position to succeed. The people we lead do not have to be our sons and daughters. The important thing is that they are human beings. They are sons and daughters, even if not ours.

Suppose I was rewarded for a goof as a way of spurring me to superior performance. In that case, it means that the reward systems in organizations, from pats on the back to written commendations, from pay raises to promotions, can be administered to inspire action and not just to reward past achievements. A case in hand in recent memory is what the Nobel Prize committee did with the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2009.

President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize about eight months into his presidency “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Though his campaign rhetoric suggested a disposition to peace, it could also be argued that at the time of the award, he had not done anything remarkable to maintain world peace. While there is scope for varied interpretations and disagreements, one can opine that he was possibly given that award as a loud and desperate plea to him– to maintain the fragile peace, such as the world knew at the time.

My parents did not have the privilege I have had (because of them) of reading leadership literature to know how to lead me into a self-motivated good cook. They were driven by love. They cared. Because of their love and care, they did not need to be taught how to be compassionate towards an erring child.

Meanwhile, please don’t take this to mean that I was never lashed. Hmmm!! If only you knew! For instance, I write in cursive prints. But each time I received praise for my writing, all I heard all over again was the sound of the lashes I took to write in a straight line and in a certain way. There were days for that, and I will possibly tell a tale of one of such days in due time.

This brings me to where I’d want to leave this story. It is not easy, but it is possible to lead people with love. I did not get to this point just by reflecting on my teenage cooking experience. It seems to me that this is also a good and simple summary of most of the books I have read, and courses I have attended on leadership.

Leading with love may not be everything in leadership for everyone, but it is not a bad place to start the tough journey of measuring our successes by the number of people we help, and to what extent those who experience us succeed.

Chidi Ileka is a banker with over 25 years of experience across Banking Operations, Corporate, Commercial, and Transaction Banking. He is an avid runner, a diverse reader and a hesitant writer.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. 

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