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Can leadership be learned?

Sunny Guan discovers how The F.E.A.S.T Project encourages leadership

Today employees are increasingly expected to demonstrate the sort of leadership qualities that are typically more innate to entrepreneurs. But can leadership be learned? 

There are many leadership training programmes available, so we can assume leadership can be learnt. Does that mean team-building is out? One thing is certain: teams need leaders and leaders need teams, – the two are linked, but recent years have seen a surge emphasis on leadership development in the corporate environment. It also stands to reason that in a post-Brexit era companies – and perhaps especially the hospitality industry – will be forced to continually adapt to an increasingly volatile marketplace. And that necessitates the development of strong leaders. Welcome to The F.E.A.S.T Project, a two-night immersive leader development experience created by two American expats determined to raise the bar on the typical corporate retreat model. So is it Bear Grylls meets Downtown Abbey with an epicurean twist? It may sound like it, but The F.E.A.S.T. Project – which stands for Finding Excellence Around a Shared Table – is a metaphor for the work environment, where the success of a company’s mission is based on the ability of everyone to do their part. And at the end of the day, how well everybody eats will be determined by the success of the teams and the leaders that emerge. It seems that the two founders, Lynn Blades and Mari Carras, embody these principles, as they divide their efforts along their individual strengths, and by doing so create a unique offering that wouldn’t be achieved without working together. Lynn Blades is a seasoned personal and executive coach who has lived in London for more than 15 years – she is also a former award-winning journalist, so she knows how to probe. And probing is what she intends to do, whether it be with the client in order to find out what the company’s goals are, or with the participants themselves, who will essentially receive one-on-one coaching by one of four expert executive coaches. According to Lynn, “We simply don’t take enough time to live in the moment. So much of our time is spent with our heads down, looking at computers, phones and e-readers that we are losing touch with our core instincts. I wanted to do something that would bring us back to basics, teach people about the power of being at the source of life and work together to create something everyone can appreciate.” Mari handles the hospitality end of the project, given her 20-plus years working in that arena. She had put herself through business school by waiting tables and was a successful restaurateur in her hometown of Los Angeles. More recently she was financial operations director for various restaurant groups in New York and in the UK. She also has a background in writing and producing theatre in NY and she often refers to the project as ‘food theatre’. She spent the last 18 months exploring the farms, fisheries, butchers and chefs in Devon and Somerset and when she stumbled across the stunning private mansion Huntsham Court, she knew that The F.E.A.S.T. Project had found its base of operation. Based at the 34-bedroom private Victorian manor house in the Exe Valley, The F.E.A.S.T. Project offers a unique and powerful opportunity for companies to identify potential leaders through a process of self-discovery in a natural environment. By recreating the lost art of earning a meal, the F.E.A.S.T Project embodies an empowering, character-building shared experience. Thrown in at the deep end, participants are taken out of their comfort zone – and their offices – to depend on nature to live as we once did. No mobile phones or laptops allowed either. Divided “Thrown in at the deep end, participants are taken out of their comfort zone – and their offices – to depend on nature to live as we once did” into four individual teams of ten, up to 40 participants will be required to either fish, forage, shoot or butcher and prepare the ingredients for delivery to the mansion all according to the chef’s elaborate specifications. The chef will then conceive a multi-course gourmet feast designed around the individual teams’ contributions. Focused on developing employees’ potential meta-leadership skills, this retreat takes the form of ‘going back to nature’ embodied in the four activities mentioned above. The participants will be guided by experienced professionals and there will be a trained therapist to motivate, observe, encourage, and help participants adapt to all the processes. All the participants’ contributions will become food for the table, which is absolutely exciting. It is said that the fishing process is similar to managing a company and a leader’s competence can be shown in this activity. Through learning how to tie their own fly and fly-fishing for rainbow trout, people’s stamina, learning ability and adaptability can be identified. It is a team mission that is a metaphor for patience, determination, practice and employees’ ability to adapt to missions. Although challenging, it is also fun, and don’t forget about teamwork – everyone can “help teammates, delegate their task, or even bribe the instructors for help”. The foraging activity is most suitable for vegetarians, and is the most survivalist module, but is different from a regular wild food walk, as sometimes unexpected circumstances happen – for example, if it rains, participants will need to build their own shelter with the assistance of a park ranger. This activity may include a visit to a beekeeper to collect honey, or a mission of goat-milking. The activities all highlight how important collaboration is, especially as there are no electronic devices. Participants will exchange information, share resources, manage time reasonably, overcome bad and unexpected conditions and solve these problems during this process. The shooting activity tests aiming and achieving targets and focused technical precision. According to the season, a clay game drive for pheasant (or perhaps duck, partridge or pigeon) and rabbit can be set. The participants’ respective potential goal management ability and their executive ability can be shown in this game. The butchering activity may include cutting up a whole lamb, deer or chickens and is the most labour intensive. Employees need to struggle for and achieve this mission, although they might feel uncomfortable with the gruesome task. Butchering is not an individual task – collective teamwork is of great importance and any leaks during the process of butchering will cause imperfect results. The whole activity shows participant competence in making and executing a plan, controlling waste, attention to detail and pushing past discomfort, and also shows their respective principles and attitudes towards facing tough tasks. In so many ways, The F.E.A.S.T. Project takes us back to the founding principles of The Duke of Edinburgh Awards, which many have done over the years, learning leadership and teamwork through experiencing challenges that take people outside their comfort zones and ask questions of the person. It has been a traditionally successful and proven model, so reason says that this too will be a success and there is no doubt that leadership is as important as ever.