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Jim Benson


On Drive, Leadership, and Humane Systems

Barbecue means more than cooking on wood

Published: Wednesday, October 21, 2020 - 11:02

Last night I sat down to watch something that would help me barbecue meat better: a two hour-long movie called Barbecue. Simply that, by Australians. I figured it would be about making succulent shrimp or game meats. Something... Australian.

The work showcased people who cook with flame from around the world. Different countries, native tongue, and subtitles, even in places with folk who regularly speak English. Maori, South African, Zulu, and Afrikaans punctuating the rift between understanding, with the words spoken yearning for it.

But the most poignant part for me was a guy in a refugee camp in the middle of the desert. A Syrian guy who was just about to open his own restaurant when bombs fell, people were killed, and they were forced to flee their homes. They were forced to move from trees and water and beautiful views to the middle of sand and dust. From homes with amenities to tents.

Now, in the refugee camp, they were surrounded by fences, they are not allowed to leave. Victimized again, imprisoned by the organizations sent to help them.

Building life in the worst of circumstances

This camp now looks like a dystopian village. Power poles, running water, semi-permanent buildings. And in this camp is this guy who has now opened a restaurant. He makes shawarma. He had the vertical spit, the meat, the gas, the ingredients for a wrap. He has made a business in the middle of despair.

The people in this camp have literally lost everything, including their freedom. They cannot travel, they hold no passports, whole families went from a modern living to being distrusted simply because they have been the victim of their despotic government and those who would sell that government arms.

Yet this guy has built a business. His shop is next to a two-chair barber shop. And there are others.

Converting inspiration into action

For someone who makes a living helping companies find their way, build stronger ways of working, and make money reliably, this is a powerful story.

He is a leader by his behavior, not by his “standard work” but by his drive to make things work well, work right, work at all.

People want to work. They naturally build community. They find peace, as they always have, through providing value and action.

This gentleman, in the worst of conditions, has the drive to work, the drive to lead—even if he hires no one, even if he has no staff, even if he barely covers his costs (however that works). He is providing normalcy and hope through his direct action. He is sending a message to Putin, to his fellow displaced Syrians, to Assad, and to those who unwillingly host them, that he and his fellow victims of aggression are real, honest, hardworking people who had made a place beautiful and had that beauty stolen, but it hasn’t taken their souls. It hasn’t taken their drive.

That is a strong vision. He could run around the camp telling everyone that he, and they, will return home and rebuild. But those words would be aspirational without action.

He is a leader by his behavior, not by his “standard work” but by his drive to make things work well, work right, work at all. When anyone approaches you with a determination to create “standard work” for any reason, always ask: “To what end?” Is it merely for efficiency? Efficiency without purpose is ultimately irrelevant. We do not standardize for simple efficiency. We standardize the mundane to make way for the brilliant. We standardize the obvious to make way for the complex. We standardize the rote to make way for the dynamic.

For this leader, his “leader standard work” was to care, to not give in to despair, and to build what he could, where he could, to provide value to whoever he could. And that is what I want to teach. That is what I want to explore. That is the future I want to build.

Practical aspiration

Toni and I want to honor that shawarma in the desert by making that inner drive understood and attainable through specific actions. They are:
• Understand your overload: Leaders are always overloaded with huge negative consequences.
• Understand your roles: What work (leader, manager, administrator, boss) is currently controlling you? How does that impact your style, your message, your actions?
• Understand your systems: Build situational awareness for you and your teams.
• Divest authority: Delegate and train to provide more clarity of management and action.
• Drive out fear: Create clean, shared systems that inform and engage.
• Build focus: Create projects that have limited, focused lifespans with clear victory conditions.
• Develop humane feedback loops: Create reporting structures that achieve situational awareness for the entire team and truly allow professional behavior.

This is beyond lean, beyond agile, beyond kanban, beyond Six Sigma. It incorporates behavioral economics, rewards professionalism, and focuses on creating healthy systems. Open-ended and relationship-based, it avoids the traps of tools and focuses cleanly and squarely on context and flexibility.

This is truly a line in the sand.

First published May 5, 2019, on Medium.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Limit WIP (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013). He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, and the Brickell Key Award. Benson and DeMaria teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. Benson regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.