Thoughts from Top Chef: What does it mean to be “Strong?”

January 19, 2012

I think that all of us, whether we realize it or not, like to control other people — at least sometimes.  I’ve seen people unnecessarily criticize friends (without any constructiveness) to make them feel better about themselves, and I’ve seen leaders give followers pointless and difficult tasks because it gives them a thrill watching others listen to them.  Putting others down, asserting our authority over others:  It gives us a power-rush.  It makes us feel strong.  It’s pathetic, but many if not all of us feel the propensity for it at least sometimes.

I began thinking about this when I was watching Top Chef last night.  I recently started following the TV series again after abandoning it after season 5 (Hosea as Top Chef?  Dear God, what a joke).  I became more annoyed than entertained by the personalities and basically didn’t have anyone for whom to cheer.

But a few weeks ago, when I randomly flipped the channel to Top Chef Season 9, I did find someone to cheer for:  Beverly Kim.  Maybe it’s because she’s Korean and I feel Asian solidarity with her and love to see her crank out delicious-looking galbi.  Maybe it’s because I relate to her:  She freely admitted that she is socially awkward and lacks common sense because she’d rather stay in and study than go out while growing up. Or maybe it’s because of her darn cute and funny mannerisms.

But the main reason that I and so many other fans love her is that she brings a whole new definition to what it means to be “strong.”  Many of the other chefs — Sarah, Heather, Lindsay — demonstrate strength by dominating others: bossing other chefs around, unnecessarily insulting teammates, and putting down competition by force of overbearing, egotistical will.  Bluntly put, the other female chefs know how to be loud.  And for some reason, they like to pick on Beverly.

Beverly is a different type of “strong,” though.  She might seem docile:  She’s non-confrontational and non-controlling, and she accepts criticism without complaint (“Beverly, what did I tell youuu?” “Sorry!!”). She’s a top-notch chef, but she’s widely recognized as the underdog.

While other chefs think that “being strong” means outwardly dominating others, Beverly’s “strength” exudes a sort of quiet integrity and confidence in oneself — a strength that can withstand the verbal assaults of others while also refraining from retort. She stands up for herself simply by being better than the competition.  Beverly doesn’t need to put others down; she focuses on herself, does what she does, and does a great job at it.  (Think about the Gospels:  The Pharisees tried to show off their power by “bullying” Jesus, but Christ, ever confident himself, always turned the other cheek and still won the hearts of others.  Which of these would we as Catholics consider demonstrations of true strength?)

That is why so many fans felt for Beverly when she was eliminated in last night’s episode, while other chefs with downright rotten personalities survive.  She was an underdog yes, but she also represented a refreshing contrast to other “strong” chefs who seek to dominate and destroy. Charming and sweet and a little bit ditzy, Beverly demonstrates an inner-strength that wins hearts over; she proves that you can be nice and still rise to the top.

As she seeks to resurrect herself in Last Chance kitchen (she already beat the surging Nyesha), she’s as strong as ever.  Because she should know that the world is cheering for her.


Books Catholics Should Read: The Pope and the CEO

January 3, 2012

The Pope & The CEO: John Paul II's Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard, by Andreas Widmer

In a society that increasingly sees business — and in particular, business for profit — as dirty, Andreas Widmer, a Swiss guard turned CEO entrepreneur, delivers an essential message:  For-profit business can be a force for good in the world, especially if its leaders live out a “person-centered ethic.”

Widmer offers a seemingly unlikely model for business leaders today – Blessed John Paul II, namely because of the great pope’s emphasis on the humanity of each individual.  Business, even in a for-profit context, exists to serve man.  It serves employees, who strive to earn a living; it serves customers, who gain a service or product; and it serves investors, who earn returns on financial investment.  The leader who loses sight of the fact that business exists to serve people sets himself and his company up for long-term failure (even if there is material profit in the short-term).

This is not to say that profit is bad, of course; according to Widmer, profit is the incentive that helps us serve employees, customers, and investors even better.  But profit for its own sake, without any concern for man, is dangerous.  That’s why Widmer so strongly advocates for a “person-centered ethic,” so distinctively embodied in John Paul II.

Widmer offers 9 lessons — drawn from John Paul II’s teachings and from anecdotes of personal encounters with the pope — to help the business leader cultivate his ethic, virtue, and humanity.  What makes this book so outstanding, however, is that while it is directed towards business leaders, anyone can apply John Paul II’s teachings to their lives.  Virtue, after all, is to be lived out no matter what your situation in life — whether you are a layman, a CEO, or a pope.

in short…
Content:  9 chapters dedicated to 9 leadership lessons, based on Andreas Widmer’s encounters with the pope while he was a Swiss guard.
Style:  Very colloquial, which makes for an easy and light read.  (Read through it on your next long plane flight!)  Alternates fluidly between (auto)biographical sketches, encyclical quotes, and abstract lessons.
Catholic?:  It’s refreshing to find a businessman and author like Widmer who sincerely tries to live out his Catholic faith in all aspects of his life, instead of compartmentalizing faith, work, and play like so many of us are wont to do.  It is Widmer’s attitude that will leave the reader convinced that business for profit, too, can be a vocation.

Overall:  4/5

Books Catholics Should Read: “Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome”

July 25, 2011

What makes biographies of great men so invaluable is that they are essentially lessons in leadership.  British historian Anthony Everitt’s compelling portrayal of the Roman emperor Hadrian in Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome is no exception.

Hadrian was an intriguing man.  Not only was he a Roman emperor, but he was also an architecture enthusiast, a poet, a hunter, a hard drinker, and a climber of volcanoes to boot.  The most important things we can learn from him, though, are his lessons in leadership: 1) A leader is not over the people, but with them; he is their greatest servant.  And, 2) a leader does not need to pursue groundbreaking change to make a difference; it enough and more to put limits on one’s own power and to consolidate and perfect existing practices and standards.

The notion of servant-leadership is nothing new to Catholics, since we see it so clearly in Christ in the Gospels.  Hadrian, too, demonstrates this type of leadership. Consider this famous anecdote:

When Hadrian was on an imperial tour of the provinces, a woman asked him to consider her appeal.  When Hadrian answered, “I haven’t the time!” the woman responded, “Then stop being emperor!”  This struck home for Hadrian, who dropped all he had to listen to the woman.

Such a compelling reminder of what it means to be a leader!  Hadrian, moreover, made sure to live among the people, whether with senator or soldier.  He also reminds us that to have power doesn’t mean you have to flaunt it:  When he was on the march with soldiers, Hadrian wore the same armor and ate the same food as everyone else; the only luxury he allowed himself was a sword with an ivory hilt.

The second lesson in leadership that Hadrian shows us is the foolishness of imperium sine fine, or “power without end.”  Hadrian, unlike his predecessor Trajan who nearly expanded Rome out of existence (through his Pyrrhic Parthian expedition), sought to consolidate Rome’s power by putting an end to her expansion.  Hadrian saw no need to add glory to his name by expanding Rome; the greatest glory was to be found in stabilizing Rome as she was.  Too often, today, we see amateurish leaders who think they need to do something extreme or innovative to make a difference (whether by creating unnecessary programs for school clubs, or by passing national laws with dire consequences).  They can learn a thing or two from Hadrian, who was comfortable enough in his leadership to perfect things as they were rather than pursuing things that were impractical and impossible.

Hadrian was a man of his times.  But what made him a great one were his principles in leadership.  He had the integrity to limit his own power, as well as the courage to make himself the Roman empire’s greatest servant.

Content: Though sources on Hadrian are woefully spotty, Everitt uses nifty detective (and sometimes, guess) work to paint a credible picture of Hadrian’s life and times.  The focus of the book is, of course, Hadrian’s reign, though close to half of it deals with the political landscape leading up to Hadrian’s accession.
Part biography and part-social history are combined into a nifty narrative that reads like a novel.  However, there are times when Everitt attempts at irony and wit, yet they failed to make an impression on me.
Catholic?: Catholics be warned – Everitt has a decided dislike for Christianity (as well as a grave misunderstanding).  However, it’s Hadrian’s example we are meant to examine; Everitt’s religious opinions are easy to overlook and dismiss.

Overall: 4.5/5

Dean Woo on Leadership

July 16, 2011

Former Dean of ND’s Business School — and newly appointed President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services —  Carolyn Woo is coming to LA this September to speak at the Catholic Prayer Breakfast. (She’s in good company.  The two past speakers have been Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York.)

Click the picture for the full Tidings story.

You can read the rest of the article for yourself above.  I’m posting this because I was particularly struck by Dean Woo’s quotes on leadership.  I’m cutting and pasting them here to let them speak for themselves.  I think from them you’ll see that the saying that Notre Dame students get to the top not to be served but to serve others holds very true.

Leadership is first and foremost a love story,” Woo explained in a recent telephone interview. “It’s a love story in the sense that you have to really care and love the mission that you’re given. Almost as you raise your children, your life is devoted to this. It’s a love for what the organization stands for. It’s a love for the people who work side-by-side with you. You understand the sacrifices they made and their extraordinary generosity and faith. And a love for the people who are affected by what you do.

Leadership is about the heart,” she added. “A lot of times we talk about leadership skills. Having good skills are necessary but not sufficient. The part that is really important is about the heart and the heart is about love. That’s what the Bible is about.”

Keep repping the ND spirit, Dean Woo.

Books Catholics Should Read: “Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive”

July 14, 2011

Every Catholic at some point needs to defend his or her beliefs and explain why they are legitimate.  This book is a good place to start preparing.

by Noah J Goldstein, Steve J Martin, and Robert B Cialdini

I found this to be a particularly nice read because it teaches you less how to persuade others than how to connect with them–indeed, how to become friends with them.  It’s a good approach because that’s life:  We should focus not on winning the argument, but on learning more about our opponents and about ourselves; it’s much better to make a friend of one who disagrees with you than to make an embittered opponent.  Besides, as this book emphasizes, you tend to persuade people more easily if they consider you a friend, anyway.

There’s also some interesting tidbits of trivia on the Catholic Church here.  Apparently the practice of having a “Devil’s Advocate” (or a diabolus advocatus, as it was called then) originated in the Church:  Whenever a candidate was up for sainthood, it was the role of the devil’s advocate to gather the strongest possible argument against the canonization of the candidate.   Of course, one can say the devil’s advocate actually strengthened the case for canonization because his arguments seemed so artificial and strained.  Yet it’s nevertheless interesting to note how practically all major decisions nowadays are not made without first consulting a devil’s advocate–a practice that began (at least officially) with the Church.  As always, no big deal.  Just another instance of why being Catholic matters.


Content: Varying tips on how to persuade other people, using the two-pronged method of scientific research and personal anecdote.
Style: Direct and Colloquial. Extremely brief chapters (4 pg average) make for easy reading
Catholic?: Not necessarily, but the tips here are nice for any Catholic to know.  Also some nice tidbits of trivia on the Catholic Church.

Overall: 4 /5