3 Leadership Lessons from the Ice Cream Maker!
When I was twenty years old I spent most of a year working in an old fashioned ice cream parlor. It was awesome. I gained thirty pounds. And loved it! My favorite part of the job was making the ice cream. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would spend the whole day in a dark, cold, small back room making ice cream. And loving it. We had dozens of flavors and a recipe book to match. When I arrived for the day I would take a quick inventory to discover what needed to be made that day, and then gather the ingredients, do the prep work, and finally spend many hours making the ice cream.
One flavor stands out in my memory as a bit troublesome. Banana. I despised making banana ice cream. For years afterwards I couldn’t stand the smell of bananas. The process for making banana ice cream was unlike any other flavor. It all started with the bananas themselves. They were rotten. At least that’s how I would have described them. The peels had to be completely black. No pretty perfectly yellow bananas for ice cream. Nope, the rotten, soft, smelly ones were perfect for ice cream, or so I was told. Really, that’s when they are at their most flavorful. So yes, that’s what I used for the ice cream. Next, I had to blend up a few dozen of them. By hand. No, not a hand-crank mixer. And certainly not an electric mixer. I would put on rubber gloves, thankfully, and then smash up the rotten bananas by hand until they were just the right consistency, until they looked and felt like a banana paste. When I was being trained for this process it was emphasized that, even more than any other flavor, it was important to follow the recipe exactly. Do not deviate. Do not improvise. Follow the recipe! The final step taught me this truth of this principle the hard way. The final step is the taste test. The mantra in the ice cream shop was, ‘The one who makes the ice cream is the first one to taste the ice cream.’ I used to think that was, you know, a great deal! In reality, if you did it right it was it was a great deal, but if you messed up somewhere along the way, well, it kept you from inflicting your mistake on someone else. And, trust me, you would remember not to make the same mistake again. Especially when making banana ice cream!
A while back I was faced with a leadership challenge; a question, a problem. And this little memory came back to me. I had no idea why. But, as I continue to think about it, I do see a few leadership lessons I learned from making banana ice cream. These lessons have been helpful to me. The next time you are faced with a leadership challenge, maybe these lessons will be helpful to you as well.
- What looks wrong might be right! The bananas looked rotten, and for most purposes they were, but for ice cream they were perfect. Sometimes the perfect answer to our leadership challenge comes in the most unusual package. Develop eyes that see beyond and behind the clever and pretty packaging. Turn over a few rocks, then turn over a few more, keep looking. The places others avoid could hold the answers you need. The unlikely could be just right.
- You gotta get your hands dirty! There is a time when delegation simply doesn’t work and you have to get your hands dirty. If you stay hand-off you may never get where you need to be and your leadership challenge will just intensify. It is sometimes, not just necessary, but good, to be hands-on in your leadership. Doing it yourself might be the experience you need to be able to help someone else do it next time. For a time, avoid the short-cut, no hand-crank or electric mixer, get your hands in there for yourself!
- You go first! When it’s all said and done you have to be the first to live with and by whatever decision you make. It’s taste-test time. You go first. In the Marine Corps we called this ‘leadership by example,’ or ‘up-front’ leadership. Jim Collins calls it ‘Level 5’ leadership. Whatever you call it, you have to be the first to embrace and live by the decisions you make. Be the first to take the blame and the first to give praise to others. You go first!
There they are, three leadership lessons learned making banana ice cream. When you face a leadership challenge, what lessons guide you? What’s been most helpful in your leadership development? What leadership questions do you still have? Are you ready to make some ice cream?
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Grace and Peace, Rich