Never mind the usual leadership gurus, it’s the story of the Little Red Hen and her can-do approach that has shaped my work life.
There are a few childhood narratives that strike a chord at the right time and have the power to stay with you forever. Together with a few other favourite stories my mother read and told (like Pookie the Rabbit whose whimsical illustrations gave me a love of blue flowers forever) the force of the Little Red Hen remains strong within me.
So imagine my delight to learn in Time that Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the recently released Lean In, was also influenced by this famous fable. In sixth grade, Sandberg took second place in a Florida-wide oratory contest when she used the folktale of the little red hen to talk about the importance of everyone doing their bit for America.
There’s a strong sense of industry, self-sufficiency and reliance in the tale. When the dog, the cat and the duck refuse to help her make bread “Then I will make it all by myself” said the Little Red Hen. “And she did.”
So over the years whenever I get frustrated that my ideas haven’t attracted the right support or sponsorship, I hear the feisty words of the Little Red Hen and remember “Then I will make it all by myself”.
It’s a liberating way to live. And I’ve launched a few businesses on the strength of this philosophy.
But as much as I love her and all that she represents, I’ve learned that there’s a dark side to the Little Red Hen and her self-sufficiency.
It’s the shadow side of the entrepreneur.
Benjamin Zander conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of the Art of Possibility told the story of how he once apologized to his students who didn’t attend an important concert because he, as their leader, failed to convey sufficiently how inspiring and beautiful that concert would be.
This I’ve learned is one of the most important roles of a leader – the ability to communicate a vision that takes people with you and allows them the joy of participation.
So I’ve learned that the Little Red Hen is missing a few tricks and these are a few ideas I’d like to share with her:
- Yes you’re tough, multi-skilled and resilient but are you a great leader? Take time to share your vision of toasty, freshly baked bread and how delicious it will be
- When you invite others to participate in your vision, you’re sacrificing complete control. There will probably be a mess in your kitchen that alone you wouldn’t make. But there’s fun, festivity and a sense of something bigger that can emerge if you tolerate the mess
- Don’t take perverse pride out of being a bad delegator. Everyone can learn to bake if you take the time out of your busy day to show them how
- Sharing the bread you’ve baked is far more fun when you do it together in a spirit of love and generosity. Have your friends over and give them a slice
With love and appreciation for all you’ve taught me.