The authors of the spiders and starfish book mention Mary Poppins as a fictional example of a starfish leader. This rare type of leader knows when it is time to leave and then, even though it would be easy to stay, leaves. Doing so liberates and strengthens the organization to move on and up.
The Mary Poppins film is rich in metaphor. I use it in my management classes to talk about job announcements and descriptions – the father’s list of required qualities for a nanny, contrasted with the children’s list of desirables, is far more entertaining and instructive than anything I could say about this desert-dry topic. And I use the film in my coaching classes. In the film’s “Spoonful of Sugar” sequence, Ms. Poppins demonstrates to her two charges how a positive attitude can make boring work, like picking up one’s room, fun. In the right hands, this coaching technique can shift the intractable to the engaged.
Near the end of the film – with the blue bird of happiness a-wing -there comes a literal shift in wind direction. This is important because Mary Poppins has agreed to stay only until the wind changes. With the weathervane’s spin, alas, it is time to leave. “Don’t you love us” pleads the little girl. Mary responds: “And what would happen to me, may I ask, if I loved all the children I said goodbye to?
Of course, that’s the point; she does love all the children, which makes leaving, letting go, that much more painful. And so it may be for the leader who has invested her all in an organization’s well-being and growth. What is the leader’s role once the dragon’s been slain?
Mary Poppins departure is a mix of bittersweet emotions. Julie Andrews’ evocative face mingles the pride of a job well done (the family’s new-found happiness) to a sadness-near-tears about leaving. Of course, Mary Poppins keeps a stiff upper lip: “Practically perfect people never let sentiment muddle their thinking,” she adages. The parrot, who’s been ragging her about the family’s seeming ingratitude, sums it up: “You don’t fool me a bit!”
The bittersweet ending reminds me of an essay by Charles Handy about the sigmoid-shaped curve of corporate life. (See my Chapter 26 in the book Leading from the Middle:: You Can’t Build a Fire in the Rain: Sparking Change in Libraries.)
Mr. Handy offers contrarian wisdom. The reforming leader, one taking a company from bankruptcy to profitability, reversing the organization’s downward direction, may well need to leave after the company has achieved its new upward curve. To stay is to tempt a flattening of the curve, a loss of momentum, an unwillingness to move further up.
I saw something like this when I was part of a long-delayed and frustrated initiative to lift a traditional organization onto a new curve to better serve and to deliver a better product. A new leader, with carte blanche from the central administration, asked me to work with him and his agenda. I did so gladly. After five years of many struggles but good results, we had achieved a genuine turn-around.
And, if we are to believe Mr. Handy, it was probably time for my boss (and for me) to leave. We had gone further up the mountain than any previous administration. There was plenty more to do and there were new challenges but we began to slow down. My boss chose to stay and took on an expanded portfolio of responsibilities. I remained as well. But, circumstances had changed – significantly there was a new leader of the central administration. Moving up the mountain become incrementally more difficult each year. On reflection, a new leadership – new faces - in the 6th year might have been better for the organization. With the positive vibe from the first five years, we might have recruited a new leader, one with an equally innovative and adventurous spirit to reach new heights.
Several years later, my leader departed and the organization plateaued out, if not dipped back to the traditional model, seemingly in reaction to the innovation and achievement of those first five years.
However sad, when the wind changes, it may well be time to leave.
Postscript, June 27, 2016: How to avoid leaving? If you want to be a “lifer” at one job, then hope for minimal disruption and time your retirement for when the business is on its last weary legs.
There are examples of one person leading an organization for decades; that leader may well have founded the organization. Avoiding the meddlesome “founder’s syndrome”, that type of leader’s challenge is to keep the organization at the top, to keep quality and service at the forefront of the organization’s mission. That’s different from having to re-invent the purpose of an organization or to move its compass from north to south.
Still, keeping the organization at the top is plenty difficult – there’s a serious risk of resting on one’s laurels, as the saying goes. It’s different from what I imagine in the above Mary Poppins essay, the rescue of an organization from an untimely morbidity with more than a few “dragons” to slay. A heroic leader who battles and wins may well find herself on the post-victory sidelines.
© Copyright 2013, 2016 John Lubans