Looking for the secret sauce: Can one learn to lead?

In 2007 Walt Disney presented its new animation movie Ratatouille, in which a little rat called Remy tries to make his dream come true: following his passion and becoming a chef. After some adventures, Remy ends up in a French kitchen and tries to help a young man achieve the impossible — becoming an excellent chef. The story takes some dramatic turns before reaching the mandatory happy end, then concludes with a very interesting quote by a master chef: “Anyone can cook.” But to stay in our special field: What about leadership in comparison? Can one learn to lead?


Anyone can lead… right?

As a leadership enthusiast, I’m asking myself now: Can anyone be a leader? My first thought is: Yes. Or… maybe not? A lack of leadership qualities becomes apparent in so many companies. It’s basically common knowledge, just like the fact that French cuisine is the gold standard. So, it might be better to approach the question step by step after all. Who knows, maybe we even discover the secret sauce to make leadership appealing to as many people as possible in the process. Maybe not everyone is a natural leader, but maybe everyone can learn to lead?


A matter of the right recipe?

Towards the end of the movie, Remy and his compagnon have to face France’s most famous food critic. They choose a very simple, yet popular dish: ratatouille. Cooking is successful if you follow a recipe. Does leadership follow the same principle? There are countless leadership methods, models, and so-called best practices out there. But can they guarantee success?

Everyone has cooked following a recipe at least once. Especially for our first tries, we rely on recipes. So, can we learn to lead following a recipe too? Is that even possible? I don’t only consider it possible, I believe it’s necessary. Some people might have great instincts and maybe even a special leadership talent, yet we all need to learn and consolidate the basics, whether it’s preparing for challenging feedback talks or handling difficult strategic decisions.

While dishes are brought to perfection with experience and a personal touch, also leadership benefits from personal experience characterized by falling then getting up again. An oversalted soup is usually the first and the last. Also in leadership, learning is the decisive factor. Being humble enough to accept leadership mistakes and integrate them into one’s personality by learning from them is key.


It’s all about passion

An excellent restaurant emerges from the combination of many different factors: ambiance, atmosphere, staff, and, more than anything else, the quality of the food. The movie shows that a rundown restaurant with fantastic food will always trump a nice-looking restaurant with mediocre food. Because the taste adventure is of the essence here. In the same way, the essence of successful companies lies in excellent leadership. This excellence manifests itself mainly in that it inspires others. The passion has to spread like a wildfire.

Good things always gain momentum, they never stay hidden. That’s why I don’t blindly believe in leadership promises and slogans. Instead, I have a look at the effects on the teams in organizations. Their behavior and way of working show the real degree of sustainable leadership in an organization. Even though leadership starts with a single person, the focus eventually needs to shift towards the surroundings: the people one can influence as a leader. Chefs who just want to take their talent to perfection instead of focusing on putting a smile on their customers’ faces won’t be successful. No stars, no toque.


The power of creativity

So, can anyone learn to lead? I like the analogy between cooking and leadership. Anyone can start and set off a process of learning. In the course of this process, with increasing experience, the moment will come when we have to resort to creativity. That’s when we start developing our own style which, in the end, will make us the leadership personality we want to be, and which your company needs. I know, not everyone is bubbling over with creativity. Maybe it helps you to not focus on what others do and how, but rather on your own talents. That’s where your creativity is hidden. Whether it’s your ability to listen, to implement ideas, or to coordinate teams. Build on your strengths and make sure you’re open to feedback. 


The secret sauce: learn to lead by doing

Well, maybe it’s not that much of a secret. And it’s not a shortcut to mastering leadership overnight either. We do believe, though, that anyone can learn to lead. Just like anyone can learn to cook. Recipes, that is models and theories, are of great help, especially in the beginning. And then it’s all about learning by doing: start, learn, keep going, adapt, keep learning… in order to eventually develop your own style based on your very own strengths and talents. Make use of your own secret ingredients to develop your leadership personality!