I am on a journey to help my country become #1, as it last was in the time of the Italian Renaissance.
Today, being Sunday, millions of my countrymen will go to mass to hear stories of the great social changes from 2,000 years ago, when Rome was unquestionably #1 in the known world.
How things have changed, but in a country that is football-crazy, I ask myself, "what if onto the pulpit steps one of the most successful managers of current times, a Catholic, Pep Guardiola, to deliver a simple truth that just like in football, where the best way to play is to start at the very back and link the whole team together as one united system, so in the wider human team the best way to co-exist is to start with the weakest link and connect it up to the strongest"
Now Pep, was an apprentice of the late Johan Cruijff, who in the 1970's was famous not just for having introduced an 'embrace total uncertainty' style of play, but also, like a modern day Moses, for having helped to release a depressed city of Barcelona from a legacy of negativity as recorded in this "En Un Momento Dado" documentary.
So where can I find the equivalent of Johan Cruijff for Italy today? The good news is that courtesy of my amazing father, who from his background as lawyer and gentleman in Venice, reinvented himself, at the age of 74, into a wine maker, sommelier and architect in Isola d'Asti's Valle Nabisso, like a precious truffle, I believe I have uncovered the man who can inspire us to an Italia Vincente as a prelude to a better world.
Now this man is to be found not on the football field, but in Italy's other great tradition, the kitchen. Antonio de Benedetto and his brother Egidio run a restaurant called Tacabanda in the centre of Asti. Initially they were famous for being the only restaurant that offered all winter Asti’s traditional dish, Bagna Cauda, a thick warm paste of garlic and anchovies that one dips with vegetables.
Then one day, in 2006, exasperated by the lack of reliability of the 16-year old interns that the culinary school was sending them, they agreed to try a youngster with Down Syndrome, Niccolò. What they found was that while Niccolò was (initially) fearful of facing customers, once shown a task, his reliability in execution was breathtaking, leaving the brothers amazed and curious to find out more.
That began a journey of curiosity. Today Antonio says "abbiamo imparato a spacchettare e ri-appacchetare la gente", which means, "we've learned the art of unpacking and repacking people", which is the core competence required for for building winning groups. Let me give you a synthesis.
After 9 years of 'learning by doing', with about 25 apprentices, where for example often chopping skills learned in the restaurant were countered by fearful parents in the home, in 2015 Antonio, together with an economist, Alex, launched a ground-breaking hotel, l'Albergo Etico, supported by exactly the type of best-practice sharing network that human systems need to succeed.
In November 2017, with Alex in Australia evaluating if they can launch an associate network there like the one that is blossoming in Argentina, Antonio asks for my help as translator as he has two delegations from Norway and an Australian filmmaker visiting in the same week.
My understanding of their recipe for turning these individuals, that might otherwise be dismissed as 'handicapped', into working, socially mobile, tax paying, and in some cases, driving licence owning, members of society, is as follows.
1. It starts with the Montessori principles that development should occur in the home and in harmony with nature, and where each child has to be encouraged to experiment and evolve at his her/her own unique pace.
2. These principles are then scaled from home to hotel, with a skill-sharing environment that reminded me of Kung Fu Panda. Master practitioners, like Niccolò and Jessica, the other full time employee who also serves on the foundation's board, help mid-level students and newcomers to evolve. Students only progress as their mastery of tasks are secured, but more and more progressive companies are taking notice, such as Lavazza invites the team in for bi-annual barista training.
3. Learning from the past, the training process is extended to the parents. For students to be admitted into the hotel’s academy, parents have to first post videos in a closed WhatsApp group of their child completing three tasks (a) ironing a uniform, (b) cooking a meal for friends, and (c) spending a night at a friend’s.
4. The academy has developed an incredible mobility network. All families, spread all over Italy (now 60-80) have to be willing to host a child. Some like Jack in Rome with travel North to Asti or South to Sicily to accompany on public transport less experienced travellers, always posting regular journey updates to the network on WhatsApp.
With an increasing number of alums finding full-time and part-time jobs in Italy's complex labour market, Antonio was asked how he knew it worked. He replied "Being a waiter is a tough. Niccolò has just done his 2nd New York marathon, Simone his 1st. Marathons are not just about being fit, they're about mental toughness. We train waiters who can keep the pace for 42km"
More recently, I discovered how Antonio's ingenuity is injecting support into two more of the weakest areas of society by:
1. Showing that youngsters with Down Syndrome can be trained to support care for the elderly in retirement homes
2. The rehabilitation of those who have been in prison, like Antonio’s delightful assistant cook Francesco DiDio.
Now let me take a step back.
There was a film about a warship that was Under Siege, but the cook was not just a cook, and he concocted a solution.
So to me the recipe to an ‘Italia 🇮🇹 Vincente’, which, because everything links to everything else, feeds into the wider human system winning, is clear.
Let us go back to Pep Guardiola and his Sunday sermon on 'how to win', where Pep could simply point to Antonio and say,
"Look at Antonio. Through purpose & practice, he's perfected his art of serving others as a chef, so that he can easily reel off the next dish with one hand. At the same time, blessed with vision and generosity, his other hand supports his network of families from Argentina to Sicily to Norway. So if you want to be remembered as the generation who rekindled an Italian Renaissance, just do as he does, both in how you master the service of others, whether it's cooking or cleaning, and how you are generous in helping your wider human teammates succeed, especially those who are weak, afraid, or out of position".
How do I help? I am one of Antonio's wine suppliers, but I've also been asked to find funds both to help grow their academy, and for the film that will tell this story of 'an Italian Renaissance starts here' to an even wider audience.
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