What Grandma Has to Teach Us About Leadership

Have you ever heard the story of the grandmother and the ham?

Stick with me here, as it provides a great lesson in leadership.

A wife walked into the kitchen one day to see her husband once again cutting the butt off the ham they were having for dinner.

He had been doing this every New Year’s Day since they were married 25 years ago, and she always wondered why. She couldn’t tell you the reason she was prompted to ask him that specific night, but she did, “Honey, why do you always cut the butt off the ham?”

He shared, “Hmmm, I am not sure. I guess it’s because that’s how my mom taught me how to cook a ham. She just always did it that way, and now I do too.”

The next day, the husband called his mom and asked, “Hey Mom! Why do you always cut the butt off the ham?”

She said, “It was Grandma’s way, and you know, Grandma knows best. I have never cooked it any other way…though I don’t really remember her giving me a good reason for doing so. I just went with it.”

The day after that, Grandma got a call from her daughter. “Mom, you always made your ham so delicious. What was your secret? Why is it important to cut off the butt of the ham?”

Grandma responded, “What do you mean? The only reason I ever cut off the butt of the ham was that my oven was always too small.”

I always get a kick out of this story. What I love about it the most is that it gets me thinking more through what I do in my personal and professional life, and I start to ask myself questions like:

  • Am I doing something because that is how it has always been done?
  • Do I know the reason why I do something a specific way?
  • Is doing something this way working for me or does it no longer make sense?
  • How might I do something differently that may work better?
  • How might I try out or experiment with another way of doing things?

As leaders, it is important to consistently evaluate our actions and understand the purpose behind them because they impact our team. For our team to be the most effective, they must know why they are being asked to do what they do. So, I invite you to think through your own set of questions.

  • In what ways are you as a leader operating because that’s how it’s always been done?
  • In what ways is your team operating because that’s how it’s always been done?
  • Why are some actions taken and others are not?
  • Are those continued actions advancing individual, team, and organizational development? How so?
  • What are some actions that you can try that might increase the effectiveness of your leadership and the productivity of your team?

When I was visiting my son and his partner in Spain not too long ago, I observed quite a different approach to work than I was accustomed to, and these questions came to light yet again. The environment is much more casual. There is more of a focus on personal well-being. Shops close early because people see that there is more to life than work.

More to life than work? This might be a new concept in most of America, where living to work is more prevalent than working to live – but, then again, is it? Research shows that employees want a healthier balance between working and living and they will do what they need to do to make that happen. Yet many leaders continue living to work. Why is this? Does it have to do with passion for the position? Seeing work as a major aspect of personal identity? Ego? Or maybe it’s because we have always done it this way and it can be difficult to step out of this “one right way of working.” However, as I always say, there is never only one right answer. And that applies here as well.

So, what is the difference between working to live and living to work?

For me, I believe that when you live to work, then work is your most important thing. It is your identity. (Hopefully, it is also your passion.)

When you live to work, you say “yes” to the work more than “yes” to anything else.

The downside of living to work is that oftentimes relationships deteriorate, and anything outside of work isn’t built or created. Levels of depression or anxiety may increase because everything you are measured by is through your work and your perception of whether you are succeeding at work or not. It can also mean that you never want to retire because you have little life outside of work and little identity beyond your work identity.

On the other hand, when you work to live you have a job. You take pride in it. You do a good job. But you also take pride in many other things, and you do a good job in those. So, you work the hours you are supposed to work, and then when it is time to go home, you do.

When we work to live, better living becomes our passion. We invest in our relationships and personal joys, such as, for many of the leaders I work with, working out and playing hard. We invest in all aspects of our life.

I once had a client who was a Chief Financial Officer working horrendous hours. He had two little kids at home, and he decided to make a change. He continued his career as a CFO but specifically looked to interview with organizations that said they had a great work-life balance. Shortly after beginning his search, he found an organization where employees only worked until 5:30 pm and did not take work home. It’s been wonderful for him ever since. He is still a CFO. He still does an amazing job, but he no longer lives to work and can, instead, invest in his family.

What about you?

What do you believe living to work means? What does that look like?

What do you believe working to live means? What does that look like?

Do you lean into one more than the other? What makes you think so and what makes one way of working more prominent for you than the other? What changes, if any, would you like to implement?

Asking these questions and the questions posed earlier of yourself is an exercise in developing your self-awareness, an essential quality in effective leadership. And as more employees request changes to the workplace (i.e., fewer hours, 4-day work weeks, working remotely, more autonomy overall, etc.) or move on from organizations because these changes are not being made fast enough or even at all, these questions become more important for leaders to consider.

As you consider these questions, I invite you to accept yet another challenge this week. What is one thing you can do that shows you that you are working to live? Then, journal how doing that one thing made you feel. Taking it a step further, how did it make you a better leader?

Looking for more ways in which you can become a more effective leader? We help leaders of Fortune 500 companies and national organizations better understand the actions they can take that work best for themselves, their teams, and their organizations. Contact us to learn more about our executive coaching opportunities and Leadership Evolution Program at [email protected]. We will talk soon.