Kitchen Door Leadership
What do Kitchen Doors and Leadership have in common? I suppose it depends upon what type of leader you are. If you are a leader that ascribes to a #leadfromwithin style of leadership you will recognize that the “Kitchen Door” leads straight to the heart of a home. Leading from within leadership leads directly to and from the heart.
My daughter and I were heading to Boston for a baby shower for the first member of “The Next Generation.” I was talking about leadership in relation to my job as well as my beliefs about it in general. At the time, we were listening to my husband’s cousin singing a Kate Wolfe song called “The Trumpet Vine.” It suddenly struck me that I believed in a “Kitchen Door Leadership.”
“Now it seems the truest words I ever heard from you
Were said at kitchen tables we have known
‘Cause somehow in that warm room with coffee on the stove
Our hearts were really most at home.
Sittin’ at a table, lookin hard at you
Catchin’ up on stories of the things we’d tried to do
It seems we really said the most when we didn’t talk at all
But let the songs speak for us like the sunlight on the wall. ” by Kate Wolfe
When I was growing up, we were let loose in the neighborhood for most of the summer/weekend days. My best friend lived right next door. I know we drove our mothers crazy slamming the back doors, the kitchen doors, many thousands of times a day multiplied by all of our siblings. We woke our younger siblings from their naps with the door slamming and gleeful screeches as we embarked on some silliness or other. The backyard was where the playing would mostly occur, unless we were on our bikes or walking to the corner store with a nickel or a few pennies for gum or penny candy. Rarely did any of us step foot through the front door leading straight to the more formal “living room.”
Wanting to keep the dirt from our shoes or bare feet confined to the linoleum which was far easier to keep clean than the carpeting, our mothers prodded us to use the back doors. Those back doors on Brook Road in Towson, Maryland led straight to the heart of the home ~ the kitchen. Mom would generally be there, cleaning up after a meal or beginning another meal. Sometimes, she would just be standing there staring out the window sipping her tea, watching us kids swing, play on the doghouse with the dog, create great imaginary worlds in the sandbox. Sometimes, both moms would be sitting in one kitchen table or the other, babies in arms, chatting and connecting, tea or coffee at hand, dinner roasting in the oven. They would be sharing a few precious heart moments, able connect at the heart encouraging them to flourish. They would share deeply intellectual ideas in the sparse moments they had together to keep their minds strong. It was always a comfortable place, that kitchen-heart-of-the-home.
If someone comes through the kitchen door they are friend, they feel so at home that they enter directly into the heart which is always open and welcoming. Formalities and idle small talk are banished at the kitchen door and matters of the heart, soul, mind, spirit can be laid out in “the truest words” or the truest silences. We are most at home in the kitchen which simply means we are most truly ourselves, able to share the deepest most vulnerable thoughts and feelings because there is a sense of safety. When someone walks through my office door, I want them to feel as though it is the “heart” of the organization. Truth is roasting in the oven and acceptance fills cups. As in the kitchen of my youth, scrapes and hurts are soothed and comforted in the kitchen. So too, are the bruises and occasional abrasions that find their way into the work environment. Kind words, a wiped tear, a soothing salve and a word or two go a long way to mending those hurts and rebuilding courage to face the next storm. I welcome the folks that come through my door as though standing in my kitchen.
Often the kitchen, that heart of the home, is the place where folks congregate when tragedy or sadness strikes bringing nourishment to the bereft. We look to food to comfort the wounded soul, fill the deep emptiness. Knowing how to fill a void in the work environment is the leader’s passion. Bringing balance back after difficulty arises can be commanded from the kitchen table as the warmth and comfort simmering on the stove wafts through the air. A great leader must not only command the forward movement but provide the comfort and warmth necessary to heal the wounds.
When my father died, it was in my own kitchen that I dropped to my knees in grief. My mother’s kitchen held me together as I tried to find my younger sister to tell her the news. My grandmother’s kitchen is where I tried to assuage the depth of her grief at the loss of her only child before his time by taking care of her. The nourishment that comes from the kitchen isn’t just for the body. Nourishment for the heart, the mind, the soul is ladled steaming, into mugs around which we curl our hands, hearts, minds, souls. Working in the kitchen takes our minds from our troubles, if just for a little while as we must prepare meals for those we need to feed. I want to nourish my folks. I want to invite the bruised and disenchanted in to sit down at my “kitchen table” and feed them with some warm comfort food to rekindle their inner flame to light their paths and show them a few open doors. I want to build a sanctuary in my leadership that provides a haven for all who need to be nourished, even if just for a brief boost to send them forward to build their own sanctuaries for the students they lead.
Many an argument played out at the kitchen table in my home. We learned early that debate was a healthy way to understand and evaluate issues. Hard topics were often raised at the kitchen table. These difficult words were still the truest words that were spoken. They may have been tough but they displayed a truth and honesty that could only be shared in the safety of the heart of the home. Leaders must have those challenging conversations with folks. They are never easy but they must be truthful, if we are truly leading from within, from the heart. If I can welcome folks through the kitchen door, no matter what the topic, I want them to believe that what I say is the truth and it is safe to be vulnerable. If one is truly dedicated to a “Kitchen Door Leadership” knowing the very hearts of their employees and how to comfort them must be the most important ingredient bubbling on the stove.
The essence of Kitchen Door Leadership is that anyone who comes to the kitchen door knows they enter into the heart of the house first and truly believing they are welcome to do so. The kitchen where truth and honesty, fun and joy were sprinkled as generously on all who entered as spices were sprinkled into recipes. The kitchen where children found comfort in milk and cookies, smells of comfort food wafting from the oven. The basic needs are met at the Kitchen Table through the Kitchen Door: nourishment, shelter, water, and love envelop us in that hug of comfort. The kitchen softens the blows of a difficult day, the warmth from the stove spreads outward to cut the chill of a wintery day and conversations sprout from warmed and opened hearts. “Hey, neighbor, friend, you got a minute to chat? How’s your mom? Is your brother back yet? I got a bad report from those blood tests they took.” Quiet moments of reflection, a shared tender smile, sips of the first morning coffee as the sun rises, licking the batter from the beaters, sharing dinner with whomever happened by.
This is how I want walking through my office door to feel. And it isn’t the office ambiance that creates that atmosphere, it is the style of the leader that “opens the Kitchen Door.” The kitchen door leader is interruptible, welcoming, like the next door neighbor who has been coming to the kitchen door for 30 years to bring a taste of a new recipe, or borrow a cup of sugar. The door is always open and the aura emanating from it is warm and comforting. Advice is shared in a give and take. The giving is just as valuable as the taking for both neighbors. It is easy, safe, and compassionate. The “Front Door” is for guests, the “Kitchen Door” for friends and family. There are times for both and times for each. Certainly friends and family enter through the “Front Door” as guests but those times are fewer than when they enter through the kitchen door where “hearts were really most at home.”
It is incumbent upon me as the host to set the stage for a “Kitchen Door” climate. What is the nature of a chat with a colleague or employee? How do I open the “Kitchen Door” and allow it to swing both ways? How do I set up the “Front Door” when there is a formal affair to discuss AND keep the kitchen door ajar? The “Kitchen Door” must still be available even during a “Front Door Event,” still welcoming to the “Heart of the Home.” “Kitchen Door Leadership” provides a safe harbor for all who use it. It must be open to and welcoming to all. And like a kitchen table, it holds a spot to share the wonders and the disappointments that life provides.
What are some practices that can provide the “Kitchen Door Leadership?” How do you balance the “Kitchen Door” with the “Front Door?” What does your office and your energy contribute to a “Kitchen Door” leadership?