Anthony Bourdain and the Rest of Us

Yes, me too. The news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide stopped me cold in my tracks. And it keeps reverberating.

Bourdain’s means of departure has deeply personal echoes for me. Thomas, my younger brother, also left this world by hanging himself. And I keep thinking of the impact Bourdain had on so many of us, via his writing and his tv series.

Bourdain seemed to live the life many of us aspire to but don’t have the courage to “go for.” He seemed just a little bolder, a little more honest, a little more adventurous, a little more in the moment than the rest of us. He seemed to happily navigate on the edge.

We’ll never know what demons drove him to depart last week. I honor the mysteries of life, I don’t wish to figure this out.

But I think of my friends in the corporate world and the transformative work we get to do together, and I honor the light that Bourdain’s life force shines on all of us. Bourdain had star qualities we may wish to emulate, just a little. Perhaps emulate is the wrong verb. Qualities we can unleash in all of us, because we already possess them.

  1. No split

Every single one of Bourdain’s chef buddies affirms this, down the line: Bourdain was the same person on-camera as he was off-camera. Perhaps this is why so many experienced Bourdain as “authentic.” There was no split between his public self and his private self.

In business, most folks I know operate with a split. The public self is, more often than not, more polished, more cautious, more calculated, more withholding than the private self. The larger the split between the public self and the private self, the less effective we are at connecting with folks. People don’t “buy” our public act. Our public self is a diminished version of who we really are. The more courage we have to bring our private self to work, with adjustments for context and suitability of language, the more likely it is that folks will trust us and, in turn, grant us influence.

  1. A clear voice

Daniel Halpern, Bourdain’s editor, praises the distinct and clear voice in his writing. A clear and distinct voice tends to mirror our thought patterns and capture them in the act of expression. It is not hampered by over-thinking or rampant second-guessing. It trusts itself. It tends to have a point-of-view. This voice is doubly powerful when it is not merely expressed in writing but is wholly matched by how we express ourselves in conversation, one-on-one. One mark of exceptional leaders is the confidence with which they trust and claim their voice. Fully so.

  1. Intense curiosity

Anthony Bourdain had the gift of seemingly boundless curiosity. About food, yes, but even more so perhaps about culture, history, customs, traditions. And people. People of absolutely every walk of life. When I was a young acting student at The Washington Theatre Lab, many moons ago, I was itching to master the craft of acting. Be curious about the world, Tony Abeson, my acting teacher, said to me instead. It infuriated me a little. I wanted technique. His answer transcended technique. No technique will camouflage a lack of curiosity about things. The executive who tries to fake his interest in other people invariably fails. An unwavering curiosity in fellow humans is a non-negotiable leadership edge. There simply is no personal success without it. Bourdain knew.

  1. The power of story

Supreme storyteller. The greatest storyteller of our times. This praise was heaped on Bourdain during his lifetime and even more lavishly so the moment his death was made public. Storytellers connect the dots. They see the connection between seemingly disparate things. These connections elicit themes. Themes invoke meaning. And because storytellers like Bourdain fully claim their voice, they do not abstain from making BOLD meaning. In the act of making meaning they richly engage us. Mind, body, soul.

Bourdain was known to be shy. This may be startling to many who do not witness a trace of shyness in the Bourdain they see on tv. I love this seeming contradiction. Shy does not preclude bold. It does not suggest we sublimate a clear voice. It does not preclude us from exploring our personal edge. Far from it.

Bourdain’s voice lives on through the body of work he created.

Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. That is how Barack Obama invokes Anthony Bourdain via a tweet just hours after Bourdain’s death was announced. Obama famously shared a meal with Bourdain in a 2016 episode of “Parts Unknown.” That’s how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food – but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.

Great guidance for all of us, don’t you think?