Leadership is an Orca Cake

| 4 min read
#leadership #banality #slack

I had a stupid idea for an article today and I want to share it recently I shared this photo of work in a slack channel. It's an orca cake from the Great British Bakeoff. And it got a positive response. And it reminded me that leadership is mostly just stupid and mundane. (And that's a good thing)

I'm not talking about the people who liked the photo. They're all great! If you're reading this Hi, I'm so sorry for turning a lovely social interaction into fodder for the content machine 👋.

Anyway here's the photo... It's an Orca Cake A photo of the Netflix show Great British Bakeoff, focused on Paul Hollywood cutting open an Orca Cake

What I’ve noticed in leadership writing is two basic sorts of ideas. It's either talking about something grave and serious and honorable, you know like leaders "run towards the fire", and XYZ and leaders set vision. Or, it's about how silliness is so important to creating safety and fun. It leads to this barren (in my opinion) view of leadership that is either the most serious or the most silly and there's kind of nothing in between. And silliness and seriousness are two of the big emotional moments in leadership, but there are all sorts of smaller moments that add up to whether or not you have the social standing to be serious or be silly. And those smaller moments are the ones that count and don’t get talked about.

So anyway, basically what happened is I was watching the Great British Bakeoff and I saw this orca cake, and I was like SHARED REFERENCE so then I shared it in this slack channel with a bunch of other people who are also leaders. And I thought to myself "This is incredibly stupid and also it's in a channel with other leaders so it MUST BE LEADERSHIP." And like my brain does I started thinking about how you could turn this into some sort of leadership moment.

So I asked ChatGPT what a real LinkedIn article might say:

  • "Whale of Wisdom: What an Orca Cake Photo Can Teach You About Leading with Finspiration!"
  • "Baking Waves: Unleashing Leadership Lessons from the Icing Depths of an Orca Cake Snapshot"
  • "The Sweet Symphony of Leadership: Decoding Orca Cakes and Team Harmony"
  • "Oceans of Insight: How an Orca Cake Can Guide You to Captain Your Leadership Ship"
  • "Taking the Cake: Lessons in Leadership from the Black-and-White World of Orca Confectionery"

And the point with these is that most of what you see is this highly optimized, tightly packaged narrative that gets at very little of the truth of what "leading" actually is. Which is like… a series of conversations mostly inflected by past actions, that are banal, but if managed and executed properly can in fact lead to incredible things. And sometimes it's just sharing stupid photos with each other because you're people and it's nice to enjoy work.

Like sharing an orca photo in Slack could go a bunch of different ways. The channel itself is typically focused on work things. People could be like well, you should keep this channel focused on important work related things or people could be like Stuart what the f*** are you doing like posting in a work channel after hours or it could be a symbol of my own incompetence or just like that I don't take my job seriously.

And just because it got a positive reaction like that outcome is actually the result of a lot of things that don't get talked about in leadership channels at all. It's the result of like a bunch of conversations and a bunch of work and the social standing that I've built up with group of people. It's the result of a lot of hard work that everyone who's on this team has done to get to know each other and communicate. (Some people popularized it in the framework for storming, norming, and performing)

And basically the big secret is that it's so easy to focus on the big picture emotional stuff. But all of that stuff is earned by the other moments. Having the right to be silly, depends on all of these things about your confidence, about your ability to perform for the people around you so that your silliness comes off as genuine and earned and not deflecting away from your flaws or trying to connect with people who don't trust you. Having the right to "take charge" and be listened to in the challenging moments is equally about the earned trust you get from doing the hard work the rest of the time.

I'm not saying the orca cake is like leadership, I'm saying being a leader is roughly equivalent to sharing a cute orca cake photo with some coworkers. Most of the time it's pretty banal and doesn't connect to some grand vision, but you should really try to make it fun and safe for the people you're sharing your time with. And you should make it fun and safe because it's the right thing to do, and the side benefit is that you will work more effectively together if you do that.

And I genuinely get frustrated because if you're looking at the majority of writing about leadership you would come away with the sense that it should be bright and glitzy and glamorous. But that perspective I actually think does way more harm than good. And if you have that perspective you're also probably going to be miserable because most of the minute to minute isn't actually any more or less exciting than the rest of your career was. It's just like doing small habitual repeated behaviors over and over and doing them well and consistently.

So whenever you read leadership writing or speaking, I think you should think of the orca cake. And really wonder whether what's being described is a happy outcome of a lot of hard work, or is it a habit or a principle or an idea that you can actually implement for future success.

And now, having successfully thought lead all of the fun out of this beautiful Orca Cake from Great British Bakeoff, I will end this article.