“If you’re a leader, you don’t push wet spaghetti, you pull it.”
– Bill Mauldin
Bill Mauldin was a famous cartoonist for Stars and Stripes, the newspaper widely read by American GIs during World War II.
It’s easy to get his metaphor about leading spaghetti, and it makes sense, sort of. But since Bill was into humor, let’s see if we can have a little fun with this, plus, I think we can take this idea one step farther.
Why Are We Leading Spaghetti?
First: Spaghetti. Why are we leading spaghetti? Maybe because it’s a popular food – easy to make and fun to eat. Just about everyone likes spaghetti. Maybe Bill was just hungry for some Italian that day.
But perhaps there’s more. Spaghetti is famous for its unwillingness to cooperate. Cooked noodles are wet, slippery, undisciplined. Add some tomato sauce, and things can get pretty messy.
If noodles are a metaphor for people as Bill probably intended, it makes sense – both can be fun, but also hard to keep organized.
Second: What’s the vision here? I like to think of leadership as influencing others in a direction. What’s the point of pushing noodles around the table? It’s another mess to clean up.
So how about we decide it’s lunch time at Mama Rosa’s Pasta Palace, and the short term goal is getting that spaghetti into your mouth to satisfy your vision of “Keeping my tummy happy.”
Now that we know what we’re trying to accomplish, maybe we can get somewhere. So how do we go about leading spaghetti?
Pushing the Noodle
You can’t push a wet noodle – it won’t go where you want it to. Everybody knows that. You’ll just end up chasing it around your bowl, getting more frustrated and hungrier at the same time.
Your fingers get messy, the noodle doesn’t know what you want, and all the other noodles are just squirming around trying to stay out of the drama.
So Bill suggests leading the spaghetti by pulling it. Good idea – once you get a grip on the front end and raise it to your mouth, all the rest of the noodle will follow. That’s how noodles work – one end of the noodle leads, and the rest follows its example.
Doing it this way doesn’t upset the other noodles quite so much.
And by using this pulling approach, you’re starting to get something done, though you’ll still need to wash your hands afterwards. Also that bit of sauce on your chin…
The problem now is that we’re only eating one noodle at a time – it’s not very efficient. It’s going to take a while to accomplish our goal.
And perhaps you’ve noticed that the people at the next table are staring, and your date is looking uncomfortable.
So let’s go one step farther – if you really want to lead spaghetti into your mouth, you don’t push it. You don’t pull it, one noodle at a time. What do you do? You wind it up on a fork.
Use The Fork, Luke…
The fork provides some backbone and structure to the whole operation. It’s a great tool because it allows you to synchronize and harmonize all those separate noodles into one delicious, efficient bite.
So the question becomes this: if pasta is people, and pulling is leading by example, what’s the fork?
I think it’s the cornerstone values that you establish as a leader.
When you live by those values every day, you lead by example.
And as you lead with those values, your team’s culture develops to reflect them. Whether it’s mutual respect in all directions, or a never-quit attitude, when everyone is working from the same values framework, your team will function more smoothly and productively.
Key thing: There’s nothing ambiguous or negotiable about a fork. It doesn’t change from one bite to the next. It’s a fork.
If you choose a good quality fork, you can end up having a very satisfying lunch. And dinner, too, for that matter.
Just be sure to keep it clean.
All this doesn’t mean a noodle won’t try to slip off your fork from time to time, but you’ll definitely get to eat.
And if you do happen to drop some pasta, be sure to use your fork to pick it back up.
Share your comments below. And be sure to sign up now for twice-monthly Leadership Updates with more tips and exclusive content not available elsewhere on the site!