Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pygmalion & Oz

A great leader who inspired my own convictions about leadership said to me that it all begins with understanding not the leader, but the led. Immediately, I began to understand what had happened during the last 18 months of working with him.

I had raised my game, I had begun to accomplish more than I had believed was possible for me – it seemed as though I was flowing with a forward current, not battling against it.


It was because my boss believed in me; he trusted in me. I recalled how he spoke to me: “John, I see you...” and there would follow a description of a problem solved, a task accomplished, a challenge overcome.

His expectation of me was that I would succeed and, with real energy, this propelled me in the direction of his expectation.

I asked him about it and he related to me Ovid’s ancient story of Pygmalion. Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. His statue was so realistic that Pygmalion fell in love with it. He offered the statue presents and eventually prayed to Venus, the goddess of love. She took pity on him and brought the statue to life. Pygmalion and his statue, now alive and a real woman, married.

There is something about the fervency of Pygmalion’s wish for the statue that awoke the life within. I now understood the last 18 months a lot better. My boss had seen potential in me and he used that power of expectation to sculpt the reality accordingly.

“But wasn’t that risky?”, I asked, “I mean, I could have let you down – you could have got it wrong...”

“You were always going to come through, John, you just hadn’t realised it yet. But I knew – and you did! Look, if you are going to be a great ‘Pygmalion’, you just have to take the risk. That is what getting the best out of people – being a leader – is all about. It is a huge responsibility and, more, a privilege. If you don’t take the risk, you cannot be a great sculptor”.

And ever since then, that is how I have tried to be when I have had the privilege of leading people. I learned from that wonderful boss (no, human being!) that I have to see people not as they are, but as they could become – their potential. And this expectation itself powers them in that direction.

This fundamental truth of leadership, based on understanding the led, has been reinforced for me by the story of the Wizard of Oz. In this multi-level story, there is no magic force at work, but there is real power. It is, I was reminded again, the power of expectation.

The Lion found courage not by having courage magic’d onto him, but by being given a medal – after all, all courageous creatures have medals. (It was the same for the Tin-Man who found his heart after being given a ticking clock; and the Scarecrow felt he had a brain once he had been given his diploma.) The medal signifies courage and the lion grew into the new expectations that were had of him: ‘as a man thinketh, so he “is-eth”’!

And this is how I try to lead my leadership life. By believing in the unlimited potential of people and working with them to coax, shape and, yes, sculpt that reality. Every day I look for the equivalent of medals, or ticking clocks or diplomas for my people.


Because the real lesson I learned was that the power of expectation spreads exponentially. Leaders do not create followers, but more leaders.

“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse. However, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.” Goethe

John Kirwan

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