Food That Matters

Isabel Lopezby Isabel O. Lopez
Lopez Leadership Services
Thursday, May 23, 2013


Paddy FieldsI first became entranced with Michael Pollan when I read his Botany of Desire. So when I saw a review of his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, it got my immediate attention. I am captured again!  Pollan writes: “After figuring out an ingenious system for transforming an all but nutritionally worthless grass into a wholesome food, humanity pushed on intrepidly until it had figured out a way to make that food all but nutritionally worthless yet again.” 

Pollan’s writing brought me to think about servant leadership – Robert Greenleaf’s concept of servant leadership – as nutritionally wholesome food! Yes, food for the spirit of the individual, of the organization, of the community and of the world.

A friend and I recently attended an opening night performance of “The Pitman Painters” at a small theater in Golden, Colorado. After the play, people gathered for a reception and conversation. A couple engaged us in conversation. Their initial attention focused on my friend and his life as a mathematician and philosopher. At some point the conversation turned to the nature of my work. When I responded, “leadership development,” their focus shifted dramatically. Her immediate question to me was, “What is your message?”  My response was a paraphrase of Greenleaf’s best test, “Are people better off because you are around.”

Well, this message of mine elicited the comment: “Sounds nice but …” In essence, “Get real.” She, a healthcare consultant who teaches innovation, and he, retired military, now in the corporate world, had desire for nutritionally wholesome leadership but had only found leadership that was nutritionally worthless.  We entered into a spirited conversation. So how does it happen that this topic came up over tea sandwiches and wine between total strangers. Of course, it could be that I have no skills in small talk, or maybe it is because the desire for the nutritional value of servant leadership – Robert Greenleaf’s kind – is so deep. It is like “soul – yearning”!

I wonder if our minds have become so refined, like our food, that truth no longer resides within us? And do our institutions enlarge and liberate, to use Greenleaf’s language, or have they also become nutritionally empty? And is not “food that matters” fuel for performance?

And so it happens that, in whatever place, the slightest comment, a suggestion of nobler possibilities, uncovers this yearning of the soul. We cannot be indifferent to this yearning, even when we do not know the answers. When the question becomes clear the answer(s) begins to unfold. Maybe that random, intense conversation was the beginning of an answer. Maybe we return to connections, to serving, to laughter and to joy. Aren’t those truly the elements of spiritually nutritional wholeness in leadership?

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Showing 4 comments
  • Bob A.

    Yes! Greenleaf’s best test, “Are people better off because you are around.” Love it Isabel, this should be the first question we ask ourselves when we wake-up every morning, I believe our relationships would take on a new perspective, that closet to the Servant leader. Very Good!

  • Tammy

    Simple yet profound! Similar to the parallel drawn with Michael Pollan and nutrition, we have allowed technology, science and pursuit of intellect to stray us from our purpose in the leadership field. Very well said.

  • Cliff Evans

    Isabel – very insightful reflections; as always! M. Okada, Japanese philosopher, lamented that “Truth is simple” but our “modern” thinking and academic training have so skewed our perceptions, we can no longer recognize it. As Greenleaf states in The Servant as Leader, “A Qualification for leadership is that one can tolerate a sustained wide span of awareness so that (s)he better sees it ‘as it is’.” I think “tolerate” is the key word here – and the people you spoke with appear to have a low tolerance for this perception. Michael Abrashoff, in It’s Your Ship, recalls his being nearly laughed off the stage at a seminar when he was asked what “metrics” he used to “determine where he wanted to go” in assuming his first battleship command… He “floundered” at the time, but upon later reflection realized he had intuitively known that his “standard should be simply whether or not it felt right. You can never go wrong if you do the right thing.” “Are people better off if you are around” is the right question to ask and the very question Greenleaf and a servant-leader in any field would ask us to consider deeply – then act on what we feel is the right thing to do. Thank you Isabel – I will drink deeply from this well and ruminate on the wisdom you have once again shared so generously. Peace and all good my friend, Cliff

  • Isabel Lopez

    I always find Greenleaf to be gently demanding. His words embrace and inspire and then in some ways shock us into refection and wiser thinking. Thank you all for this ongoing discussion as we continue to create better workplaces, communities and societies.