Leadership Lessons from an Iceberg Lettuce

Unless you have been hiding under a rock somewhere, you will no doubt be aware of the disastrous 45 days of Liz Truss’ leadership. You will also be aware that the Daily Star newspaper in the UK launched an experiment on the 14th October and asked who would last longer – a head of iceberg lettuce or Liz Truss as Prime Minister. Well, we all know how that ended! Anyway, this got me thinking about the leadership learnings from this and I know that there is much to be learnt from what Liz did and didn’t do. However, I also thought that perhaps the lettuce has something to teach us as well and these are the iceberg lettuce leadership wisdoms that came to mind…

1. The Lettuce is the Foundation – not the main ingredient:

The lettuce is the foundation of a good salad. A fresh, crisp, strong lettuce creates the basis for a good salad. There is something about the infinite possibilities of lettuce as on its own it doesn’t have the strongest flavour allowing us to add a choice of many other ingredients to make something tasty. There is no end to what can be added and with a backdrop of a soft green colour, we are free to experiment to our heart’s content to create something visually and gastronomically appealing [preferably both at the same time!].

And so it is with successful leadership. A successful leader creates the conditions for growth and experimentation and gives people freedom to be creative. Sure, there should be some boundaries and you can think of that as the bowl in which the salad is created. The framework of the bowl, that you as leader create, gives the lettuce a sense of comfort as it’s not going to spill out and make a mess and it’s that sense of comfort, that psychological safety if you will, that allows the lettuce the freedom to explore all alternatives.

2. Lettuce needs Diversity:

Lettuce on its own, whilst a great foundation, is not enough. For a really tasty salad, we need a diverse range of colours, tastes and textures to create something magnificent. Chefs are constantly experimenting with different combinations of ingredients in order to surprise and delight. Ever tried a grilled grapefruit, green bean and almond salad? It’s delicious by the way and I highly recommend it [check out Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, our very own Michelin star restauranteur – it’s one of his].

The point here is that neuroscience is showing us that the more diverse a team, the more creative it is, the more productive it is and the more successful it is. With this in mind, it is the responsibility of a leader to create the most diverse team possible, not only for the benefit of the organisation, but also for the benefit of the people in the team. There is much growth that can happen when you pair grapefruit and beans, not only for the fruit and vegetable concerned, but for the entire salad.

3. Lettuce has a Shelf Life:

A salad is only as good as its ingredients, as we’ve mentioned above, and yup, unfortunately lettuce has a shelf life. Having a slimy, smelly lettuce will ruin any attempts at creating a salad masterpiece. Once a lettuce has reached this point, it is good only for the compost heap. The lesson here, as I see it, is two-fold. Firstly there is the short term and more personal lesson. As a leader, especially a women leader, it is critical to care for ourselves to keep us healthy and in optimum condition. Now I know that ‘optimum condition’ sounds a bit like a used car sales advertisement but hear me out please. If you as a leader are not healthy, well-rested and energetic, how will you lead successfully? Take time to care for yourself so you can show up as the best foundation of your salad – sorry team!

The second lesson here is longer term and is so critical because its impact is both personal and organisational and this is around the question about when to step down from your leadership role. Leave it too late and you could become the slimy lettuce, preventing your salad from being the best it could be. Deciding when to leave is difficult, granted, and perhaps there are some questions to ask to help, like, ‘am I still adding value to this salad / team / organisation?’ or ‘is my contribution to this salad / team /organisation still useful?’ or even, ‘am I still passionate about creating the best salad / team / organisation I can?’. Answering these questions honestly can help a leader decide if they still have something to offer their salad or if it’s time to move on and find a new bowl to create in.

Who would have thought that the humble iceberg lettuce would become an internet star and generate so much interest? Just goes to show, there are leadership lessons everywhere, however, lettuce leave it there for today [sorry just couldn’t resist!]. We would love to hear your thoughts around what else the lettuce could teach us –  feel free to share your leadership recipes in the comments below.

By Audrey Riley

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