How Cooking Relates to Leadership (And More)

Alex Chen
6 min readMay 1

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Recently in a Chinese history class that I attend, I learned about Yi Yin (伊尹), who was a Minister and chef to King Tang of ancient China. One time, Yi Yin asked the king, “Do you know how cooking relates to leading a country?” I thought this was a very thought-provoking question.

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Before the teacher told us what Yi Yin said, he said that there is no one correct answer, so he had all of us share our thoughts first. Below are some great insights that the class came up with.

  1. The Middle Way
  2. Diversity
  3. Individualized Guidance
  4. Endurance
  5. Love

1: The Middle Way

Confucius said,

“Superior people follow the Middle Way, so they always do things to just the right degree. Common people violate the Middle Way, so they act without restraint.”

(Original Text: 君子之中庸也,君子而時中;小人之中庸也,小人而無忌憚也。)

In other words, someone with superior cultivation will make sure to do things to the right degree. When we flavor food, too much flavoring is just as bad as too little. We have to find the sweet spot (no pun intended).

Similarly, a leader cannot be too strict nor too lenient, too big-pictured nor too detail-oriented, too plan-focused nor too action-focused. Everything needs to be done to the appropriate degree.

2: Diversity

If you have just one really amazing food, that alone is not a meal. A good meal has a wide variety of foods, nutrients, colors, and flavors. The chef should not be prejudiced, only cooking some foods and never cooking others.

Likewise, a good leader should have a diverse team. There’s a Chinese idiom that roughly translates to,

“Three average joes are better than one genius.”

(Original Text: 三個臭皮匠,勝過一個諸葛亮)

The idea is that a team with multiple people has multiple strengths, and they can work together to accomplish much more than a solo genius can.

Moreover, a diverse team of advisors can help the leader to avoid blind spots in the team’s thinking, to balance out the weaknesses of each individual, and to complement each person’s strengths. The leader also should not be prejudiced towards a particular team member, as that would lead to conflict and resentment in the team.

3: Individualized Guidance

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Different foods require different cooking methods. Some recipes require baking, others steaming, others blending, others grilling. Even if you use the same method for two foods, you might need to cook them differently. For example, we need to boil carrots for a long time, but spinach will be cooked almost instantly.

Similarly, a leader needs to lead different people differently according to that person’s personality and needs. The Chinese Record of Education said,

“Only when we know the persons’ mind can we then help them correct their problems. A teacher should grow people’s good points and reduce people’s faults.”

(Original Text: 知其心然後能救其失。教也者,長善而救其失者也。)

Just like teachers, leaders needs to teach and guide their followers. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and leaders should try to match each person with a role that can leverage their strengths while also guiding them to reduce their weaknesses.

4: Endurance

The Buddha said,

“The success of everything depends on endurance.”

A chef has to endure many things, such as high heat, long standing time, long waiting time, and lifting heavy pots and pans. Sometimes, a chef has to work with less-than-ideal ingredients or tools. Other times a chef might accidentally make a mistake. These are all things that need to be endured with a calm mind.

Similarly, a leader needs to endure the heat of criticism, the cold of prejudice, the heavy burden of responsibility, the pain of mistakes, the difficulty of non-ideal circumstances, the challenge of people problems. All of these require calm and patience to endure.

5: Love

Mencius said,

“The difference between a Superior person and a common person lies in their intentions. A Superior person always holds the intentions of love.”

(Original Text: 君子所以異於人者,以其存心也。君子以仁存心。)

Great chefs put a lot of love into their food. They talk to the ingredients, praise them, and help them achieve their full potential. They aren’t just cooking food for a pay cheque, they truly love their craft and love to give others an amazing meal.

Similarly, great leaders aren’t just trying to earn a pay cheque. They truly believe in their mission, and they really love their people. They will talk to their people, encourage them, and help them achieve their full potential.

What Yi Yin said

Yi Yin mentioned many things. First, he said we need to make the most out of each ingredient, let each ingredient achieve its full potential. This one was mentioned above by a classmate. Second, when we cook, the fire needs to be adjusted to just the right level of heat. Sometimes you need high heat, sometimes you need low heat. This was also mentioned above.

Third, we need to pay attention to proper sequence. Some ingredients need to be cooked before others. Similarly, somethings need to be done as a prerequisite to others when it comes to leading a country. For example, he asked the king: Who do you think you should be governing? If you think you need to go govern the people, then you will fail. You need to first govern yourself. Cultivate your own virtues and fix your own faults, then people will naturally respect you and follow you.

Fourth, we need to be extremely careful. He said that governing a big country is like cooking a small fish. It is very difficult to cook a small fish well, so we need to always be very cautious with every thought, speech, and action.

My Reflection

Since I work as a teacher, I reflected that cooking is indeed related to teaching. Just as in cooking, I need to follow the Middle path when teaching. I shouldn’t speak too much, or else students will get bored and sleepy. The difficulty of my content needs to be challenging but not too difficult. I need to get students’ feedback, but their ideas need to be balanced with my own professional judgment.

For diversity, teachers can also work in teams to plan lessons. Indeed, when I lesson plan with other teachers, the creativity and quality of the lessons is better than I could have come up with alone. I also ask other teachers to observe my class and give me feedback so that they can find my blind spots.

For individualized guidance, obviously teachers need to understand each student’s individual situation and needs to help them succeed in the course. That’s why we interview students at the beginning of the course and then check in with them later throughout the course.

For endurance, a teacher needs maintain a calm mind when students behave disrespectfully or make the same mistakes over and over again. Other times, a teacher needs to endure unfair criticisms and misunderstandings from students. If the teacher gets angry, then the relationship with the student will be damaged.

For love, great teachers are those that really love their students and the subject they teach, as opposed to just trying to get a pay cheque.

As per Yi Yin’s points, teachers should not always focus on what students need to do better but rather on how we as the teacher can do a better job teaching the students that we have. Teachers have the power to really influence young people’s future, so we need to handle our power with great caution.

Concluding Thoughts

Cooking and leadership might sound like two completely different things, but they have a lot of similarities. If we extend this further, cooking is also related to parenting, teaching, writing, painting, playing sports, and more. Why? Because everything should be done to cultivate the mind and to improve our virtues. How does cooking relate to your job or craft?

Originally published at https://www.weeklywisdomblog.com on May 1, 2023.

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Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.