Floyd Lee, Pioneer

by Matt Grimshaw
October 31, 2013

Floyd Lee: a pioneering cook in the US Army

If you ever doubted that your job is what you make it, check out this story about Floyd Lee a cook from the US Army. It’s a great example of a pioneer in a large organisation.

At the start of the Iraq war Floyd Lee came out of retirement to run the US Army canteen just outside Baghdad airport. Most US Army canteens are sterile, Halliburton operations, but Floyd was determined to be different. The key, was how he defined his role and his driving sense of purpose: “I am not just in charge of food service, I’m in charge of morale” Floyd told reporter Julian Barnes.

This calling manifested itself in hundreds of small improvements: changing the fluorescent strip lighting and installing fans with soft bulbs, chef’s hats for the staff, proper tablecloths and sports banners on the walls. Above all the canteen developed a great reputation for its food; so much so, that soldiers would drive out of the secure green zone in Baghdad, along one of the most treacherous roads in the country, just for a meal.

Here’s the best bit, Floyd did all this with the same standard issue materials as every other Army canteen. He and his team just cared more. They were creative and attentive: marinating their meat for days and carefully selecting the best fruit and veg, putting their passion and personality into the dishes.

I reckon Floyd and his team didn’t see themselves as people who slapped mashed potato on plastic plates. Instead they saw the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of people working in an extremely stressful environment. Then they did something about it. Pioneers aren’t simply dreamers, they have the ingenuity, initiative and drive to do it better. And the difference was enormous. Floyd and his team had the same basic ingredients as their rival canteens, the same job descriptions and resources, but my guess is that they were much happier. They took more pleasure working with each other. Experienced more of those ‘flow’ moments when they felt able to get engrossed in creating the dishes. And perhaps most important, they would have felt a much stronger sense of meaning and purpose.


I came across this story courtesy of Chip and Dan Heath’s great book Made to Stick (see below). The original story was reported by Julian Barnes “A culinary oasis” US News & World Report, 6 December 2004.

We love hearing about pioneering stories like this so if you come across any send them our way and we’ll showcase them here on our blog. Other stories we’ve shared include:

Pioneering customer service from Netflix

London Underground’s pioneer

A US debt collection agency being ‘nice’!

The rise of the Big Mac

Our favourite pioneers at Nando’s Camberwell