Leadership Lessons from the Kitchen: How to Prevent Difficult Communication from Burning Your Fingers

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Leadership Lessons from the Kitchen: How to Prevent Difficult Communication from Burning Your Fingers

I would never have guessed at the time, but leaving the Ivy League to go to culinary school gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about leadership. I recently shared four of the lessons I learned as a chef  and the response was overwhelming. Since my lessons seem to have hit a nerve, I thought I’d share some more stories from the kitchen—and the leadership lessons that resulted from them. ­­­

Warning: This leadership lesson may have unexpected effects. You may find yourself running to a bakery to satisfy a craving for tarts. ­­­

Today, I am going to take you with me back in time to my pastry class. There, Darby—my new, young, chef instructor—will teach us about fresh fruit tarts. Inadvertently, he will also teach us a few lessons in communication.

Here we go…

It’s 4am on a winter morning and I am huddled with 20 other students around a wooden table in a dark bakery. We’re all trying to learn the intricacies of fruit tarts in my Introduction to Pastries class. Our 4am class time is not scheduled just to torture us. Coffee aficionados often want croissants with their 6am coffee, and unfortunately for all of us pastry students, croissants don’t bake themselves.

I am nervous. It’s not that I’m worried I can’t hack a 4am start time; I actually enjoy getting up early. I’m just experiencing the common jitters of starting something new. After all, I JUST started culinary school and I am not yet 100% confident I can truly become a chef.

Nonetheless, I am excited to learn as much as possible; and who doesn’t want to start their day with a tart? Just look at how beautiful and delicious they look!


You may be surprised to learn that one goal when creating a fresh fruit tart is to fool the eye into thinking the pastry is larger than it is. Pastry chefs do this by creating an alternating left and right pattern with the fruit slices. Take a look at this image and you’ll see what I mean.


As I mentioned, our group is large, so it is very hard to see Darby (the new, young chef instructor) as he demonstrates how to create the correct, alternating fruit pattern.

Not only is it difficult to see, but also, I am not an artistic person. I just don’t see patterns easily, so reproducing them takes me a lot of time. This can be a major problem in the culinary world, especially when making pastries—and this particular tart is all about patterns!

Suddenly, my instructor stops the demonstration and calls me to the front of the class. He then asks me to replicate the fruit pattern that he just demonstrated; but I can’t see the pattern! I just cannot tell how the fruit alternates left to right, and I am unable to reproduce the tart design—especially so quickly in front of others.

How does the instructor handle my inability to complete his request? He yells at me in front of our entire class. And I cry.

But let’s not fuss over spilled milk. There are lessons to be learned.

What Can a Pastry Chef Teach Us About Communication?

Looking back on this scenario, I can see that the leader of our class was not communicating in a very effective way. Here are three lessons in leadership communication based on this real-life scenario.

Lesson 1: Leaders Must Remember That People Learn Differently

The leader of our class didn’t take into account the fact that people learn differently. There are seven different learning styles— spatial, linguistic, intrapersonal, intropersonal, musical, kinesthetic, and logical.

Yet, our instructor only used one style to teach us—visual.

It would have been more effective if he used more than one style to teach the lesson. For example, Darby could have:

1) Let us play with the design first, on our own, on a flipchart (intrapersonal)

2) Asked us to create designs with a partner first (interpersonal), or

3) Instructed us to draw the design as a formula (logical).

It sounds silly, but we could have even learned a song! By using different techniques to reflect the seven learning styles, all the students would have had a chance to learn the technique in their own way—setting us all up for success.

Lesson 2: A Good Leader Speaks Respectfully

A leader should never yell at someone at work. This is an absolute no-no. If someone doesn’t understand something you said, you are responsible for explaining it in a new way until that person does understand.

So instead of yelling, take these steps:

  1. First, acknowledge the communication error. For example, “I’m sorry, I must have not communicated clearly. Tell me what you understood about what I said, and I can fill in the blanks.”
  2. After acknowledging your communication error, encourage your team member (or student in this case) to ask questions. Create an open environment and be compassionate. Yelling does not open the floor for constructive dialogue!
  3. Once you’ve worked through questions in an open and compassionate way, give your team member a chance to try again. Acknowledge what the person is doing well, in addition to pointing out ways to improve.

Lesson 3: To Improve Communication, Leaders Can Take a Simple Training Approach

My instructor, and all of us, would have benefited by him taking a training approach. There is a training model, which explains an effective course of action. It’s quite simple:

  1. Tell them what you are going to show them.
  2. Show them.
  3. Tell them what you showed them.
  4. Ask for questions.

So in this case, my instructor would say:

(1) Today we’re going to work on one pattern for a fresh fruit tart. This fruit pattern is made in layers, alternating the direction of the fruit slices, in an effort to fool the eye into thinking the tart is larger than it is. To do this, you need to be able to visualize fruit slices going in one direction (left or right) and then the next layer of fruit slices going in the other direction. (2) Now, let me show you what I mean. (Demonstrating with the fruit slices) First, you put the slices on, with the peaches going to the left. Then in the next layer, the plums go to the right. After that, we return to a layer of peaches going to the left, and so on. (3) This is an alternating fruit pattern for fruit tarts. (4) Are there any questions on how I did that?

Introduction to Pastries could have been a more effective (and better) experience for the culinary students if our leader had used any of the communication strategies listed above. I did eventually master the tart technique—but I have to admit, I am still scarred thinking of that instructor whenever I see a fruit tart!

A strong leader does not want her employees feeling scarred by poor communication, years after the fact. Instead, she wants to enrich the lives of those she leads. By using the seven learning styles as a tool for effective communication, speaking respectfully with employees, and taking a training approach to ensure you are getting your message across clearly—leaders can ignite positive and productive change in their organizations.

I know I can’t be the only one who has experienced the raw end of the stick from poor leadership communication. What’s your story? I’d love to hear. Please leave a comment below, email me, or find me on Twitter. and share!

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  1. Violeta
    September 29, 2014

    Yes, I have a couple of stories, but have to admit the first thing I thought when I read this was, “Yep, sounds like a trainer chef to me!” They’re much better these days, but some years back? Sheesh.

    • Loehr
      September 30, 2014

      Yep… a trainer chef! What are your stories? I’d love to hear.


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