Followership in the Kitchen

The concept of followership (Kelly, 2008) is one that keeps nagging at me. Do I believe that some people are happy simply following another person? To be less active in decision making? To constantly provide work for another person’s idea? Although the “Dancing Man” Youtube video illustrated the concept in a clever way, I couldn’t get passed the fact that the half-dressed man was not leading a company or a school–he was simply starting a dance party.  

And then I visited my parents in Indiana for an early family Thanksgiving celebration…  

imagesMy family is big, loud, and fun–if you have seen “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” then you basically know my life. While home, I usually try to spend some time in the kitchen with my mom, attempting to learn the Greek recipes that have been passed down from generations of yiayias (grandmothers). This day, we were making avgolemeno soup, the Greek comfort-food-equivalent of chicken noodle soup. I quickly settled into the role of my mother’s sous chef–boiling water for the orzo, straining chicken bones from the broth, cracking eggs, juicing a million lemons. These are the not glamorous jobs during the soup-making process. As I was picking out yet another rogue lemon seed, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I was a follower. And happily so. In the kitchen, I was content as a supporter, as a second-hand man, as a helper. Glad to not make important cooking decisions, I still felt fulfilled providing her the necessary ingredients and preparations so that she could work her magic.

However, avgolemono soup is a generations-old recipe; there is no risk involved when choosing to make the soup. What, then, are the roles of the leader and follower when a new or even unpopular decision is being enforced? To answer that question, I turned to another chef: Massimo Boturra, owner and executive chef of the #1 restaurant in the world, Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. He was highlighted in the Netflix series “Chef’s Table.”

Boturra is eccentric–seeing food as a vessel for social change, as art, as tangible memory. He flipped Italian comfort food on its head by presenting well-known dishes in a new, provocative way. For example, instead of serving a big bowl of tortellini, he served six individual tortellini in a line, forcing diners to appreciate every morsel. His unpopular decisions eventually became regarded as genius, but it took years of staying true to his vision to achieve his current praise. Throughout the years, he had a team behind him who had to support him the same way I supported my mother–preparing ingredients in the background to let him work his magic.  

He relies on his pastry chef, his pasta chef, his sous chef, and his wife to bring his lofty ideas to an edible creation on a plate. He delegates tasks, he trusts everyone in his kitchen, he teaches young chefs, and he models positive behavior, even when it is most difficult. One of the most engaging stories of the documentary was the history of his dessert, Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart: Boturra and his sous chef, Taka, were serving the last two lemon tarts when Taka dropped one of them. Naturally, Taka was terrified–how would this world class chef react? Boturra, staying true to his mission as a chef, decided to change the plate into a deconstructed lemon tart, making the mess look intentional. As head chef, every plate of food puts his reputation on the line, not the sous chef’s reputation. Boturra’s level of understanding, kindness, and trust would have solidified any young chef’s dedication to Boturra as a follower.  

51198010_dropped-lemon-tart_1x1My final takeaway is that everyone is a follower in some capacity. A CEO, a principal, and a chef all lead people to create a final product, and they need people who believe in that product and want to be active members in the process. Followership is not a weakness or a lack of creativity; instead, it is the ability to be humble and recognize when good ideas are worth a follower’s own contributions. In my own life, I will eventually be ready to lead the cooking of avgolemono soup; however, in the meantime, I will happily tie on an apron and juice a million more lemons.  


Gleb, D. & Henion, J. (2016). Chef’s table. United States: Netflix.

Kelly, R. (2008). Rethinking followership. In R. Riggio, I. Chaleff, & J. Lipman-Bluman (Eds.), The art of followership (pp. 5-15). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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