It's time for another installment of "leadership lessons from pop culture." Anyone who follows me knows that I love to highlight the things we can learn about leadership from examples that are all around us, especially from shared pop culture experiences like movies and TV. So I had fun with this summer's runaway hit, "The Bear," on FX/Hulu. It's about Michelin star chef, Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto, who gets pulled back to Chicago to take over his brother's sandwich shop and the smart, ambitious sous-chef, Sydney Adamu, who joins him. If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend it. I've watched it twice now, as I usually do—once just for enjoyment, and once to look closely at the learnings we can glean. (Don't worry, I share some small plot points, but no major spoilers ahead!)
Unlike many other pop culture examples I've covered, like Top Gun: Maverick and Ted Lasso, that mainly focus on positive examples of leadership, The Bear is also full of things we shouldn't do as leaders, so for this post, I will include both some Dos and Don'ts that great leaders can consider. Let's start with two Don'ts in the spirit of clear feedback:
In The Bear we see people yelling in every episode, from Carmy being berated by his chef at his upscale restaurant, "Why are you so f'ing slow, why do you hire idiots?" to Carmy and his "cousin," Richie yelling at people every day in the shop.
Although there are many examples of industries where there are stereotypes of people frequently yelling, including restaurants, investment banks, and the military, the research is clear that yelling creates negative workplace impact. According to Bob Sutton, author and Stanford professor, in an interview on Marketplace, he says when you yell in the workplace that “People have more depression and mental health problems. They’re more likely to get physically sick, they’re less likely to work hard, they’re more likely to be less creative and they’re more likely to make mistakes.”
If you want people to perform well, don't yell at them.
2. Let 'it' roll downhill
When one character is treated badly by another or has something bad happen, they almost always take it out on someone else. Carmy gets stressed by the bills and yelled at by Richie, so he takes it out on Sydney, holding back his approval for her ideas. Richie feels like he's losing control with Carmy & Sydney onboard so he yells at everyone, and shirks his own responsibilities. "It" all rolls downhill....
To create a high-functioning workplace, we have to be able to talk to each other about what's really bothering us and ask for support when needed, rather than exploding and hiding the real issues. Being a great leader means creating an environment where our team feels safe to speak up when they are under pressure and we can model that expectation by expressing our own vulnerabilities too. (More on this below.)
Now that we've covered a couple of the Don'ts, here are some terrific examples of leadership Dos that all great leaders should consider
1. Step up into leadership
This show is a great reminder that leadership can come from anywhere; it doesn't need to be handed to us with a title or role. Sydney comes to the restaurant just to "stage," to work on a trial basis as an unpaid intern. Not only does she prove herself to be a highly qualified chef, but she also takes initiative and does the "extra credit" to showcase her ideas and earn herself an important role. She crafts a binder full of ideas on how the restaurant can operate more effectively that impresses Carmy, and persuades him that she can be a valuable partner.
And she steps into her leadership time and time again. When the gas line goes out, it's Sydney who finds a way to set up an outdoor kitchen so they can still do lunch service.
I often get asked by people early in their careers, "How do I get a seat at the table?" and what I always say is that they should just sit at the table without waiting to be asked. The key is to bring some good ideas with you, just like Sydney and her binder. As the great Shirley Chisholm said, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."
2. Model the behavior you want to see
Great leaders model the values and behaviors that they want to see in their teams, and Carmy does this well in The Bear. He starts by calling everyone in the restaurant "chef," which he explains is a sign of respect. By telling people that the term "chef" is a way to show respect, he then reinforces that respect every time he says it. This encourages people on the team to use the title for each other, increasing the level of respect they actually show each other on a daily basis.
Carmy also both sets and models high expectations as a leader. When he wants the restaurant to be cleaner, he not only says so, he gets on his knees to deep clean the floor. When he says he expects excellent quality of the food they serve, he cooks dishes himself to demonstrate what he means. By modeling the behaviors he wants, Carmy actively encourages everyone to live up to the expectations he sets. As he says to his team, he's "teaching them to operate at a level they didn't know they could."
I'm a big believer in this model, and as an example in my own work, when I say we should take good care of our customers and deeply understand their needs, I still personally respond to Rising Team customer emails every day.
3. Find other leaders that complement you
Many leaders are afraid to bring in someone who could "show them up" or a # 2 that's better than them, for fear that the person might take their job at some point. In The Bear, Rich is especially threatened by Sydney and worried that she'll replace him, and he shows this fear by saying "She's just a baby" and other derogatory comments.
But the best leaders know that we can achieve more by bringing in people who complement us and ideally have strengths in areas we don't. By hiring Sydney who is not only a capable chef, but also has talent in operations and strategy, Carmen finds himself a true partner. She is so good that he can trust her to run the shop when he's out, and she can help him envision and deliver a brighter future. That's the kind of success we can all have when we are open to hiring people who complement us (and arguably even show us up) in key areas.
4. Change the chemistry
There's a point in the show when Carmy realizes that if he lets things keep going as they are, the restaurant will continue to spiral downward into an unhealthy and toxic environment. In order to shake things up and get the team on a better trajectory, he takes some steps to "change the chemistry." In The Bear, this means more clarity around roles and priorities, more respect for each other and their work environment, and more inspiration about what they can achieve working together. And as he sees progress, Carmy also gives them positive reinforcement to let them know he likes what he sees, as he says "I love this tempo; let's keep it up."
This idea of changing the chemistry can be used in any work environment, not only in those that are unhealthy. In fact we built Rising Team to help teams everywhere come together for meaningful and fun team development experiences that do exactly this. Investing a few hours each quarter to intentionally bring the team together for something other than "hitting the numbers" can deepen trust, help people learn something new, and increase effectiveness, effectively "changing the chemistry" on a team for the better. The key is to be intentional and consistent in setting aside time for the team to focus on learning and growing together.
The way that Sydney and Carmy get past the cycle of constant yelling and ultimately build a strong working relationship is by listening to each other. The more they listen, the more they make it safe for the other person to openly share vulnerable aspects of their lives, which in turn helps them understand each other more. It is a virtuous cycle of healthy communication, rather than a toxic cycle of yelling and shutting each other out.
When Carmen shares that he went to an Al-Anon meeting and Sydney shares that her catering business grew too fast and left her in debt, they each now understand something deeper about the other and build compassion for the other person's perspective. You can see this shared understanding come out in a humorous way when after a deep conversation, they bond over their shared dislike of cooking brunch—"F brunch...."
The best leaders are the ones who both deeply listen to their team and are willing to share their own experiences with some vulnerability to recognize their shared humanity.
6. Just keep going
Throughout the show, there are so many examples of people hitting roadblocks and obstacles along the path towards their goals, which is inevitably part of work and life for all of us. As a small example of a setback, in trying to prove she can be independent and reach something on the top shelf, Sydney accidentally sends an entire vat of stock they need crashing to the floor. When Marcus goes to help her clean it up, he says to her, "Just keep going." And in fact, that's the solution to the majority of life's obstacles.
When Sydney's catering business failed, she just kept going. When Marcus can't quite perfect his donuts, he just keeps going. When they get a poor grade on their health inspection, they just keep going.... One foot in front of the other, one step at a time, this is how leaders can get through their own challenges and help their teams do so as well.
Photo credits: FX/Hulu, Vanity Fair