Helping leaders emerge


What I Learned from Flipping Burgers and Scrubbing Pots: Lessons in Leadership

“A Mindful Leadership Story by Len Bardfeld”

“My religion is kindness” – Dalai Lama

I have had a range of job experiences throughout my life: minimum wage, work-study, entry level, and management. Each of these experiences influenced “how I show up” and what I value: hard work, collaboration, listening, and most importantly, treating others with kindness and respect.

One of my first jobs was working in the kitchen of an overnight camp as “veggie boy.” I made salads and prepped vegetables. I did this because in exchange for work, I could attend camp for free. I soon realized the kitchen was understaffed and we would need to work long hours. Unfortunately, the manager did not seem to care about the team’s morale, which sometimes made it tough for everyone to stay motivated. I learned that no matter how difficult a job might be, the importance of taking a deep breath, remaining calm, and completing it – despite my supervisor’s attitude. I also made a promise to myself that I would care about the other people I worked with and contribute to a positive morale.

In another fast food job I was in charge of cooking burgers and making fries. One of my teammates worked the register and struggled with math. Thankfully, we found a way to collaborate and support each other. When she needed help figuring out the change, she would yell out the numbers and I would help her. And when the burgers were being ordered faster than I could cook, she would step in and help. This experience taught me that with collaboration not only are you able to get the job done, but the work is more fun.

In college at Cornell, I had a work-study job and found myself in the kitchen again. I worked a variety of jobs from short order cook to refilling beverage machines, but my favorite was washing pots, pans, and trays. Eggs don’t wash off easily so I decided to look at scrubbing trays as my workout. I would work myself into a sweat and entertain the others by making a lot of noise banging tray, pots and pans. The supervisors noticed how hard I worked and how well I got along with the team and recommended I apply to become a part-time supervisor, which I achieved. I learned that with the right attitude I could work hard, remain grounded, and inspire others.

Once I was promoted to supervise the Cornell kitchen, I focused on treating others with kindness and respect. One day a student was late. When he got there he apologized. I sensed he expected me to chew him out but instead I put myself in his shoes (I was also a student) and told him I understood. Had I not practiced compassion to this fellow student our team would have been worse off – a disenfranchised worker and more work for everyone. This turned out to be a good lesson because he thanked me several times, always showed up on time, and did whatever it took to get the job done.

As I have transitioned into different leadership roles at Procter & Gamble, Dial, and Johnson & Johnson, I continue to practice what I learned from my earlier job experiences. However, I learned I would need new skills.

Because I had always worked in fast paced environments, when I became a manager in the corporate world I thought it was best to offer an opinion as soon as I had one. But that didn’t work. In fact I received harsh, but meaningful feedback to “shut up and listen” from my direct reports during a High Performance Team workshop. As I started to “really listen,” I built trust with my team, learned that solutions became richer, and found my team taking more ownership. That lesson was fifteen years ago, but to this day, I still remind myself to “shut-up and listen,” as its easy to drift back to old habits.

The importance of being kind, remaining calm, working hard, and listening are values I practice everyday.


Len Bardfeld is a Senior Director at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Products Company where he has worked for over sixteen years. He is well regarded and respected by his team – I often hear his colleagues and direct reports describe him as smart, fair, and an effective communicator. He is also known as a caring mentor, as he supports and provides valuable feedback to help others reach their potential and grow in their careers. In addition to being a seasoned professional, Len is a devoted husband and father – Len and his wife have three teenage sons and live in Yardley, PA.

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“The Buddha’s teaching is highly radical in its break with essentialist thinking, which usually conceives of the ‘real’ as that which does not change. The Buddha’s view was that absolutely everything was changing and therefore the self was not exempt. As a result, Buddhist thinking conceives of the self as process rather than as a fixed and immutable essence.

– John Peacocke, “Investigating the Buddha’s World”

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“Saying ‘yes’ to more things than we can actually manage to be present for with integrity and ease of being is in effect saying ‘no’ to all those things and people and places we have already said ‘yes’ to.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn