Muffins and Music

Dear Sor Juana

Been listening to myself tell tales of leadership and discovering a lot of food and music in the stories! I imagine in the convent your leadership would have had some similar features, your poems and presence commanding court.

I thought I would tell you a couple of stories. I once worked for a minister in government and every day and night the team I led would toil long hours and often in challenging circumstances. Keeping morale high helped productivity and building in times of enjoyment was essential.

In one setting I introduced Five Minutes of Fun on a Friday – we felt that was all we could really manage, but we would make then fun filled. Each week one of the team, regardless of role or rank was rostered to be responsible to bring this joy to us all and find a way for us to experience it together. The creativity was endless, a skittles game in the corridor, a tour of the office with lollies and soda looking at the art on the walls (which we barely noticed); a mock debate with fictional characters dealing with matters of state we were managing in the parliament. Fun won and usually went beyond the mandatory five minutes.

In another setting there was an industrial kitchen and again my team (still ministerial but a different portfolio) were often arriving very early and without breakfast. I would get into the office earlier and bake muffins and that fare became the staple for morning briefing. Each morning I would assemble everyone for five to ten minutes, every person would tell us all their priority for the day, and ask whoever they needed to help them or watch their back. The muffins were always appreciated and by the time the Minister walked in they were fed, briefed and ready for the day (and often night) ahead.

In another place where there were scores of casual and volunteer staff it meant that people were coming and going all the time and ways to build community and a sense of belonging even though you might only appear for a few hours a week was a high priority for me as CEO. I instituted the music box – a box of various percussion instruments – whistles, wood blocks, triangle, maracas, hand drums and all sorts of things to make a noise. There was only one rule, if you had something to announce or celebrate (eg a new grandchild, passing an exam, mastering a new skill, surviving a useless meeting) then it was your responsibility to grab the box and let everyone know that there would be what we came to call a “musical moment” coming. You announced the time of the moment, or it could be spontaneous, but our response had to be to join in. Moments often lasted less than a minute, although there were some very special and poignant moments over the years – the silent moment when we collectively mourned for someone’s loss and an extended moment when we celebrated a very large injection of funds.

For many of us, the workplace is one of the most primary places we find community, and it is extremely lonely when we don’t find community there. In leadership there is a serious invitation to host community and bring ritual and to make the space for the rituals to emerge.  I don’t often tell these stories, however have found myself sharing them this week in conversations about what works to build a cohesive team so thought they were worth sharing beyond the tables I have been conversing at this week. Leaders are custodians of community.



Work in Progress – Trevi Fountain – Rome Feb 2015

1 thought on “Muffins and Music

  1. Lisa Ryan

    I hope that your groups have enjoyed hearing those stories as much as I enjoyed reading them. I need more 5 minutes of fun in my facilitation!


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