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Warhol, leadership and chicken noodle soup

Every week on Monday at 12:00 GMT there’s a community chat called the Humans First EMEA Hangout.

Last week we were posed the following challenge: define the form of future leadership in the new age.

So, we talked about soup.


Mike Vacanti described a metaphor for leadership development of making chicken noodle soup. It’s something we all enjoy and something we all think we know how to make.

For years there has been ‘a way’, or even ‘the way’, to make chicken noodle soup. The ingredients, the seasoning and method hasn’t changed. Most crucially, the decision about what’s the biggest priority in that soup hasn’t changed.

As Mike said, “We hail the noodle.” But what about the alternatives?

What is the most important ingredient for us in that soup wasn’t noodles, but chicken? Or the dumplings? What if, as Marie Smith mentioned, it was hot outside and we wanted to adjust the recipe’s seasoning to suit those conditions?

What if we have a recipe that’d been in our family for generations? And what if we want to change it? (Blasphemy!)

What if we chose the formulation of the soup that was most nourishing for us, rather than the most convenient?


One of our talking points in this conversation about defining future leadership was education.

I was reminded of a quotation attributed to Germaine Greer and which I paraphrase here. Talking about women rising to CEO positions, Greer said:

“The problem is that the system will change you before you change the system.”

Germaine Greer (ish)

Many of us have been raised on a model of leadership like we were raised on Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup: easily available, comprehended and applauded by many and convenient to ‘make’. Our tastebuds become accustomed to that flavour and so we then have to ask: how do we begin – or more accurately, where and when do we begin – to change the flavour?

Because we know that Greer’s comment rings true. We might not be changed fully when rising through a system, but battling on as the only one operating differently is lonely, disheartening and often too much like hard work.

So we don’t do it, or we give up.


One of the answers to ‘where and when do we begin to make these changes’ is ‘in education, and as early as possible’.

A conscious part of my work as a tutor in higher education is to model and sometimes explicitly teach the style of leadership I wish my students to embody. I am trying to teach them how to be leaders of the future before they even know they will become leaders.

We’re not sitting down and having ‘leadership lessons’ (although maybe we should). All we’re doing is being human beings to each other in the hope that when power is thrust upon these young people as they rise up through the system of modern work, they remember to be human. It’s my hope that their strength of humanity will mean they change the system before it changes them.


In writing this article I chose to use a picture of chicken noodle soup to illustrate it. I chose to use not just a picture, but a picture of a painting by Andy Warhol.

In July 1962 Warhol exhibited 32 canvases in his first one-man fine art show. Each canvas depicted one of the variations of Campbell’s soup available at the time, created through projection, tracing and painting. The canvases were displayed in a single line on a shelf, just like the real cans in the store.

The image of the soup can has become ubiquitous in Western culture. It was the image that began the cult of Warhol, whose influence has extended far beyond his lifetime. It’s an everyday item elevated to high culture by someone choosing it as the subject of art and placing it within an art context. The work as a whole has a strange, obsessive quality – a sort of insistent dedication to the mundane which intrigues me despite my general disinterest in what became known as pop art.

MOMA holds the original 32 canvases, and says this about the work:

“Repeating the nearly identical image, the canvases at once stress the uniformity and ubiquity of the product’s packaging and subvert the idea of painting as a medium of invention and originality.”

MOMA

And this is where we are currently with leadership and how we are developing leaders. We are in a place of “uniformity and ubiquity”, for the most part. We have chosen to forget leadership as “a medium of invention and originality”.

And while, as a subversive experiment, this approach might be intriguing for an artwork, it’s not intriguing for our world. It’s harmful.

Many years, hours and dollars have been spent on insistent dedication to one form of leadership; a form that stresses uniformity of packaging and ignores the unique combination of ingredients inside each of us.

Yet leadership, like painting, can be an opportunity to be inventive and original, if we choose to make it so. It can change the system before the system changes us. It can be nourishing. It can.

To join the Humans First EMEA Hangout each Monday at 12pm, click here.

By Eleanor Snare

A writer and educator, my mission is to bring a more connected, creative world into being by fearlessly fostering the conditions needed for creativity to thrive.

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