“…With a Head Full of Brains”: Dr Seuss on Leadership

Leadership Dr Seuss Title

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” –  from The Lorax, by Dr Seuss.

Leadership SeussLike many kids, I loved the rhythmic rhyming and colourful plays on language that litter the works of Dr Seuss.  Much to my delight, my son loves his work too – so I’ve had more than a few opportunities to reflect on the many talents of Dr Seuss. As an adult, my appreciation has moved from the tongue-twisters and ‘meaningful nonsense’ to a more nuanced recognition of the quite profound philosophy that sits behind the stories.

There are more than a few leadership lessons for both the aspiring and the experienced leader within the colourful pages of these playful rhymes.

Today I’ll share seven of my favourites.

Leadership means not being afraid to try something new

“I do not like green eggs and ham.  I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.” – from Green Eggs and Ham

Leadership Green EggsAs a kid, it was the idea of green eggs and green ham that cracked me up about this story.  I doubt I ever realised that Dr. Seuss was trying to help parents with fussy eaters!

But as an adult, the moral of this story appears to be that you should give new things a go.  Because you never know, you might just like them!

This story also has another important life-lesson: keep trying.  Poor Sam-I-Am is sure that his friend will enjoy the green eggs and ham, but along the way he is abused and personally attacked for continuing to suggest that he try them.  In saying that, Sam-I-Am’s marketing tactics leave a bit to be desired!

Leadership means valuing diversity

Leadership Pale Green PantsKids love to be scared – just enough… And What was I Scared of? has just the right amount of terror.  The idea of “pale green pants with nobody inside them” is just silly enough to take the edge off the fear.

As an adult though, I’ve come to appreciate that this isn’t a story about being afraid of the dark, or even overcoming your fears, per se.  It’s a story about the extent to which ‘otherness’ creates unnecessary barriers:

“But then a strange thing happened. Why, those pants began to cry! Those pants began to tremble.  They were just as scared as I! I’d never heard such whimpering and I began to see that I was just as strange to them as they were strange to me!” – from What was I Scared of?

The Sneetches also have a few things to say about discrimination. The sly Sylvester McMonkey McBean (a much more effective marketer than the tenacious Sam-I-Am) fleeces the unsuspecting Sneetches of their life-savings by playing to their greatest fear – that they might not be able to tell each other apart, and therefore have no reason to maintain the segregated feasts of the Star-belly Sneetch club.

“They kept paying money.  They kept running through until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew whether this one was that one… or that one was this one… or which one was what one… or what one was who.” – from The Sneetches

Leadership means making a decision, even if you don’t have all the information

“You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked.  Some windows are lighted.  But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out?  Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose?  How much can you win?… Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.” – from Oh, the Places You’ll Go

Leadership DecisionsIn the real world, just like Seuss’ fantastical worlds, decisions seldom come carefully packaged and wrapped with a bow.  You will have to make decisions without all the data.  Without all the information.  Without all the answers.  If you are aware of your own limitations and pay due respect to maintaining your character and integrity, you can make decisions from a solid base – knowing that if you realise subsequently that the decision wasn’t quite right, you will be able to fix it and do the right thing.

Leadership means practising gratitude and not playing the victim

“When you think things are bad, when you feel sour and blue, when you start to get mad… you should do what I do! Just tell yourself, Duckie, you’re really quite lucky! Some people are much more… oh, ever so much more… oh, muchly much-much more unlucky than you!” – from Did I ever Tell you how Lucky you are?

Resilience and coping skills are a fairly common feature in Dr. Seuss’ stories.  Oh the Places You’ll Go is a veritable feast of analogies for life’s ups and downs:

“And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” – from Oh, the Places You’ll Go

Leadership TroublesThe best part of having an adult excuse for purchasing Dr Seuss stories (aka a toddler) is discovering Seuss-isms that you never read as a child. My current favourite is I had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew where the protagonist spends the entire story trying to escape from all his troubles, only to eventually conclude that:

“I know I’ll have troubles.  I’ll, maybe, get stung. I’ll always have troubles. I’ll, maybe, get bit by that Green-Headed Quail on the place where I sit. But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready, you see.  Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!”  – from I had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew

Leadership means acting with integrity and character

Horton the Elephant makes fairly regular appearances in Dr Seuss’ stories.  Slightly hapless, and not necessarily the smartest animal in the jungle, he never-the-less demands the readers’ sympathies.  After being ‘tricked’ into taking over nesting responsibilities from the lazy Maysie-bird, he clearly sets about to live by his end of the bargain – even if she hasn’t held up hers…

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant… An elephant’s faithful one hundred per cent!” – from Horton Hatches the Egg

Leadership IntegrityAnd the pay off? Well the egg hatches, and what comes out looks a bit more like an elephant than a bird!  Clearly demonstrating that integrity and character are repaid in kind.  Call it karma, perhaps.

The quirk in this story is that while as a child I completely accepted that Horton sitting in a tree was sufficiently novel to warrant smuggling him to America to sell to the circus, yet the arrival of an ‘elephant-bird’ resulted in Horton and his ‘offspring’ being returned home safe and sound!  My adult brain is, unfortunately, a little more cynical…

Leadership means not being a jerk

Leadership powerThey say that power corrupts, and Dr Seuss was keen to make this point. Yertle the turtle-king loses sight of serving his people, and ultimately ends up in a muddy puddle instead of on a throne.

“Turtles! More turtles! he bellowed and brayed. And the turtles ‘way down in the pond were afraid. They trembled. They shook. But they came. They obeyed.” – from Yertle the Turtle

Funnily enough, I never noticed, as a child, that Yertle the Turtle is one story in a compilation all about nasty traits that should be avoided.  The abuse of power, vanity (Gertrude McFuzz) and hubris (The Big Brag). I doubt that was an accident!

Leadership means you have the power to change the world

Leadership LoraxThe Lorax was definitely my favourite Seuss story as a child, and that persists to this day.  The environmental waste created by the Onceler and his thneeds was both terrifying, and yet intriguing to me.

But at the same time, the book ends with a message of hope…

“You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds. And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs. Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back” – from The Lorax

The power of imagination, the power of one person, the power of the written word… This strangely hopeful message that just one little person, with a head full of brains and shoes full of feet can make a real difference.

“And will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! (98 and 3/4 per cent guaranteed.) Kid, you’ll move mountains!” – from Oh, the Places You’ll Go

Recommended Reading

If you need to get in touch with you ‘Inner Seuss’, you should check this out… (Amazon Associate Link).  It’s a 40 book set, complete with a felt Cat in the Hat Hat! …or buy it for your kids!

All images and quotes included are Copyright Dr.Seuss Enterprises, L.P.

Leadership Possibilities

I want to help you to lead.  Not from a position of power, but from exactly where you are now.

So I’m writing a book specifically for you.  It’ll be out early next year (28 February 2018 to be precise).

If you’d like to know more, please sign up for my newsletter (I don’t spam, just a weekly newsletter) where I’ll keep you up to date on progress, test some ideas, and even share a preview or two as we get closer to launch-day.

Let’s do this!

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