Leadership That’s Always Winter, Never Christmas

Icy children’s stories from today and yesterday contain leadership lessons for us all.

I’m sitting here this morning in the aftermath of one of the nastier ice “storms” that we’ve had here in the upstate of South Carolina during my residence in this fantastic region. I use scare quotes around “storm” because I have to admit, I’ve never quite understood the term “ice storm” after living for years in Dallas, Texas and now Spartanburg, SC.

Ice doesn’t really “storm,” it just kind of builds up over time.

Which is actually a pretty cool real world analogy for the topic of this post, so…enjoy.

The benefit of being near joy and wonder…

One of the benefits of having 4 young children is that I get to relive childhood (constantly, some would say) with a grown-up eye on childish things. I get to experience joy, fear, and wonder through the eyes of four developing youngsters.

I also get to see, firsthand, the impact that storytelling has on our psyches, both good and bad.

I’m convinced that the power of storytelling never really goes away. A strong narrative delivered with integrity is just as powerful in helping adults understand and change behavior as it is for children.

it’s just an underused (and sometimes misused) tool.

Sometimes, referencing childish narratives with grown up eyes brings to light some pretty interesting and serious insights that apply to our adult lives.

If you’ve been with me for a while as I’ve dabbled in these posts, you’ve possibly seen my stab at a list of non-business books that business people should read. It’s here.

Number 2 on that rather eclectic and certainly incomplete list was the book Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Orwell was certainly onto something when he built his little allegory of a communist gangster takeover of an idyllic farm. It’s worth another look for anyone looking at social and hierarchical power dynamics in the organizations of today, particularly where there is extreme stress on words like “collaboration” and “teamwork.”

That digression aside, the reality is that narratives, even and perhaps especially those meant for children, have lessons.

I’m struck recently by the leadership narratives brought on by three icebound stories that have permeated popular culture. That they all deal with ice is only the more convenient this morning as I write this…

Three Profiles in Icy Leadership

The three children’s stories that have leadership narratives with icy “teeth,” which I’ll place in ascending “destructive” order, are:

1. Disney’s Frozen

The “leadership” plot: Poor Elsa, afflicted with fantastic powers to create ice and snow at her whim, freezes her entire kingdom. Through the travails of many friends and the schemes of a few enemies, Elsa learns to control her powers and balance them for the good of the kingdom (and herself). The kicker: True love.

The leadership lesson: Frozen is a story of unconscious incompetence writ large. You’ve probably experienced a fantastically talented leader who inadvertently freezes everything around him or her. You may have been one!

This leader creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that drives out all action and vibrance. But, this leader is actually coachable in the end.

In my experience, this is the profile of many, many young, smart, driven leaders who step into leadership situations that are challenging. They take control, dictate, panic, and ultimately freeze all the people around them because it’s all they have known over time. Maybe you have personally been here…

How to solve it: The key to the “Elsa” leader is to turn unconscious leadership incompetence (essentially a lack of self awareness around others who don’t have his or her powers) into conscious competence through coaching, feedback, and repetition.

Most organizations have a few Elsas in their midst. They need to be nurtured and coached, or else they progress toward our next to profiles.

2. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen

The “leadership” plot: The Snow Queen, a story from 1845, was a very distant feed-in to the plot line for Frozen. “Very distant” meaning that the stories lack resemblance to one another.

Interestingly, the Snow Queen’ leadership foibles fall somewhere in the middle of the three vignettes here. The Snow Queen is a necessary and fantastically talented leader, being the leader of the hive of bees that bring snow to the world.

She, however, chooses to enslave a young boy who has been accidentally afflicted with splinters of glass from a magical mirror that freeze his heart and pollute his eyes–causing him to have affinity for the cold queen, to see the flaws in all that is beautiful, and to see all that is awful in an amplified way.

The Snow Queen takes the boy, whose heart is already cold, and freezes him further. The boy, blinded by his affliction, is pleased with her. The Snow Queen maintains her grip on the boy by telling him he can have his freedom once he completes a relatively simple task (spelling “Eternity” with shards of ice) that he just…can’t…figure…out.

Eventually the boy is freed by the love of his best friend, who warms his heart, washes away the splinters of glass, and lets him see the world, and the Snow Queen’s leadership, as it is.

The leadership lesson: The Snow Queen is a purposeful leader who has chosen to entrap a young soul for her amusement or benefit. You may have encountered this type in your experience.

The leadership lesson in this one is that individuals should be asked to serve to their highest ability, not to the whim of the leader. The Snow Queen leader doesn’t get this, and instead wants his or her followers to think they are in the best position they could possibly be in while he or she dictates their career.

How to solve it: Because these three vignettes are a progression from least bad to worst, this one is a bit tougher than the first. Most importantly, followers need to be willing to test whether their leaders are creating win-win career situations, or merely playing people into roles that are advantageous to the leader. On the leader side, having a few strong sounding boards outside of his or her organization can prevent the tunnel vision that results in pigeon holing people and getting less out of an organization than is possible.

All of this, of course, pales in comparison to the next profile…

3. C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The “leadership” plot: Because the book is a Christian allegory (and quite a good one), most of the leadership focus in analysis of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is on the Christ figure, Aslan the Lion. Since none of us is going to have the power that Aslan had, I’d propose the real leadership lesson comes from the reign of Jadis, the White Witch.

The White Witch presides over a Narnian kingdom where she has commanded it to be endlessly winter, while at the same time purposefully preventing Christmas from ever coming.

Thus, in the kingdom, it is “always winter, but never Christmas.” In the precise brilliance that is C.S. Lewis’ writing, this phrase sums up so many leadership regimes in so many companies and institutions.

The White Witch is a terror. She is evil. She is enabled by an entourage of characters who have her back. She puts a bounty on any human who enters Narnia, effectively enlisting the entire population not against threats to the Kingdom, but threats to her own reign. Her most terrifying capability is that she can turn her enemies to stone…She has decorated her castle with statues formed of people who chose to dissent or disobey.

The leadership lesson: The White Witch is a leader with a conscious focus on self aggrandizement through a reign of terror. Leaders who fall into this category tend to be those who were not coached or apprenticed in their early years and who happened to be surrounded by and benefit from people that the leader was able to influence unduly as they rose to power. In short, I’m not sure there is a lesson, other than to intervene before the White Witch becomes the White Witch.

How to solve it: Leadership change tends to be the only way to overcome a charming but consciously vindictive and well protected leader. Usually, like in the story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it requires outside intervention (sometimes, ironically, resulting in the “demise” of the intervener). Bosses, boards, and peers have to identify the leader by virtue of his or her cultivation of a menagerie of henchmen and a garden of noble stone statues.

I hope you never encounter the corporate equivalent of the White Witch.

What’s the big deal?

So, why take an hour and a half of my day to write this? Well, first, the ice storm allowed it. That’s a picture of the deck outside my home office you see at the start of this article.

It turns out that having an open moment on the calendar is a fun thing when one of your hobbies is trying to push to a higher level of strategic and business leadership understanding and discourse (yes, I’d enjoy your comments).

Second, I think the lesson I’m writing on this morning is that the intersection of power and responsibility is real.

All of these leaders were fantastically powerful and talented in a raw sense.

The first type, the Elsa leader, has no idea that her power can freeze the world around her if she is not careful; and she has to learn.

The second kind, the Snow Queen leader, can only break out of icy habits by understanding that the people she leads should have an informed say in the matter.

The third kind, the White Witch leader, is in most cases a lost cause, polluted by power and ossified by suspicion and paranoia. She needs a re-set.

Though they are all powerful, these leaders’ senses of responsibility move steadily from outside themselves to inside themselves. There’s a point to reflect on in that reality.

Our children get to experience stories of wonder and consequence. Sometimes, it’s good that we revisit them as adults to understand that the authors of these stories–in most cases adults–were inspired by real, grown up problems.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post: Ice doesn’t really “storm,” it just builds up. Such is the case with leadership profiles outlined here…Hopefully, with a little foresight, we can get good at guiding the budding leaders in our midst away from these particular end points.

May your iciest experiences be preludes to the celebration of Christmas (or the holiday of your choice), and not the harbinger of an eternal blizzard…

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