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Eight Leadership Lessons from Where the Wild Things Are

No, this is not a post about Wall Street hubris or recklessness Congressional spending. It’s a lot simpler than that.

Last Friday we had family adventure and caught an opening day showing of Spike Jonze’s new movie of Maurice Sendak’s classic Where The Wild Things Are, a book of few pages and even fewer words. (Don’t worry, there’s no spoilers here!)

The story is about a young boy, Max who, as a result of some bad behavior, ends up on an adventure of a lifetime.  He sails through a dark and stormy night and lands on an island that is inhabited by some very strange creatures indeed. Some might even call them monsters but that would not be fair. This group might even remind you of the people that you encounter everyday at work or in your neighborhood. They each have their own little (or big) idiosyncrasies, they bicker from time to time yet they tolerate one another for the most part.  However, what this community is so sorely missing, or at least what they think they’re missing, is leadership.

Along comes our little friend Max.

Max introduces himself to the group and oversells a bit in the process; but that’s okay, lots of us do from time to time. He ends up assuming a little more authority than he probably should and agrees to use his “powers” to try to please everyone, which is another thing that many of us do, often without much success. Max organizes the community and helps them realize the vision of one of their more “confident” members. But diverse communities bring diverse wants, needs and perspectives and sometimes they change over time. Max’s influence wanes and his authority, tenuous from the start, is questioned and ultimately challenged. In the end, Max’s plan might not have turned out exactly the way he wanted but his impact on those he touched was significant and lasting. He departs for home and his next adventure.

So what can we learn about leadership from Where The Wild Things Are?

  1. Initiative is important. Sometimes you just have to step forward and do something about a situation because nobody else will or can.
  2. Learn from experience. You might not think you’re ready to assume leadership in a given situation, but chances are you’ll survive, come away richer from the experience and better prepared for the next time.
  3. Get things done. Depending on the situation, organizing, facilitating and getting things done, can be more important than having Vision.
  4. Treat people fairly and equitably but accept that no matter what you do, people might not see it that way.
  5. Show people that you genuinely care for them and they will usually lose their monster-like tendencies.  L O V  E
  6. When it’s time to leave or let go, leave or let go.
  7. As Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky tell us in Leadership on the Line, “to lead is to live dangerously.” You might even get eaten!
  8. Finally, leadership can be fun. So as your first order of business, Let the wild rumpus start!

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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