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Ben Preston

Degree:

MBA

Location:

USA

Industry:

Leisure, Travel & Tourism

Year:

2016

By Ben Preston

Leadership from a different perspective

Humanities & leadership

Every business school has classes on leadership. Usually these classes use case studies demonstrating times business and government leaders solved difficult issues and talk about incentives, personality types, and communication.  Oxford Saïd, though, has the distinction of being part of a 1,000-year old University. In addition to typical leadership classes, Oxford Saïd also offers a class called ‘Leadership from the Humanities’. In this class, we used museums, architecture, and philosophy lectures as the starting point for learning about leadership.  

Without exaggeration, this class opened my eyes to a new world. Being a good leader in any organisation is difficult; for an entrepreneur just starting to build a new company, being a leader can seem all but impossible. This class taught, though, that leadership inspiration is all around us.

I went to business school thinking that leadership was something practiced only by CEOs and Senators; Oxford taught me that leadership can be found in unexpected places.

A chef in Patagonia

My startup ViaHero aims to change the way people travel and I spend a lot of my time working with people in the hospitality industry discussing new restaurants, interesting cuisine, and unique chefs. In my work, I recently came across one chef who taught me more about leadership than I have learned from any business or government leader. Francis Mallmann, an Argentinean chef who specializes in the food of his desolate but beautiful homeland of Patagonia, lives a life very different from most other celebrity chefs. While most Michelin starred chefs live in big cities, surrounded by luxury, Mallmann chooses to live on small island hours from the nearest town. And rather than cooking typical high-end cuisine, he focuses on the food of his childhood and his homeland, like root vegetables steamed in the ground, or wild game cooked over an open flame. Francis Mallmann is a true leader: he owns a culinary empire, manages a team of young chefs, but still manages to stay trendy, creative, and unique. Speaking about his own life and success, Francis Mallmann perfectly articulates how he achieved so much:

“You don’t grow on a secure path.  All of us should conquer something in life, and it needs a lot of work and it needs a lot of risk. In order to grow and to improve you have to be there…at the edge of uncertainty.”

Had I not taken ‘Leadership from the Humanities’, I might have let this advice pass me by. But since Oxford taught me that chefs, artists, and performers are leaders, too, I paused when I first heard the chef speaking this advice and gave it the attention it deserved.

Leading a small startup, this is exactly the advice one needs to hear. Early in the life of a startup, things are difficult. Products are broken, customers are hard to find, and partners come and go. Working in a startup is exactly what Mallmann describes as ‘the edge of uncertainty’.  But none of this matters, at all, as long as a leader and his or her team are ‘growing and improving’. Working ‘at the edge of uncertainty’ is scary, but a leader of a startup needs to accept that, and make their team comfortable with it as well. Most of all, a great leader needs to make sure his or her team uses that sense of unease and uncertainty to constantly learn and grow.

Chef Francis Mallmann taught me that to be a successful leader in a startup, one must embrace uncertainty. Oxford taught me to look always look for examples of great leadership, even in unexpected places.

Email me at Ben@ViaHero.com with any questions or thoughts.

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  • Francis Washington

    “You don’t grow on a secure path. All of us should conquer something in life, and it needs a lot of work and it needs a lot of risk. In order to grow and to improve you have to be there…at the edge of uncertainty.”