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Why are two of the most influential stories that I ever read, which were written by one of the most famous and beloved American authors, virtually unknown to most people?
Let’s start with a couple of disclaimers:
- I didn’t grow up in the US, so the books that I read were not the same ones that most Americans would be likely to read.
- Even though I first read the book as a 7-year old, I did not realize how profound they were until I was in my 20’s.
The first story taught me two very important lessons:
- Don’t overstate your abilities, because the truth will come out.
- If you work with someone who continues to overstate their abilities and under deliver, then you need to walk away from them. Actually, you probably need to run. My limit is 3 “tigers” (you’ll understand my metaphor as you continue to read).
The second story taught me four very important lessons:
- Standing up for those weaker than us, and respecting them when they stand up for themselves.
- Knowing when your job is a Bullshit Job (as was later defined by David Graeber) and doing something about it. The question I often ask myself is “Do I really need to ask someone to hold my tail or not?” (again, keep reading).
In short, these two stories taught me to consider a) whether I, my collaborators, and my team were delivering in a meaningful fashion, and b) whether the job itself was relevant, or did it fit David Graeber’s definition of a Bullshit Job?
I suppose at this point you are wondering, “Who is this great American author, and why haven’t I heard about the book with these great life lessons?”
The author is Theodor Geisel, known to most of us as Dr. Seuss. That probably takes you by surprise, particularly as you are reading about this in a leadership blog.
The book is I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today!, a collection of stories published in 1969 which contained the two pieces which had such a significant impact on me, I can Lick 30 Tigers Today! and King Looie Katz.
Your next question is likely, “How did I miss them? I thought I had read every Dr. Seuss book ever written?” Well, Theodor Geisel wrote over 60 books as Dr. Seuss, so don’t beat yourself up if you missed a few.
I can Lick 30 Tigers Today! is the story of a young Cat in the Hat who, after boasting about being able to fight 30 tigers, then finds one excuse after another to disqualify them all to the point where there are no more tigers left to fight. Regretfully, I have seen that story played out so many times in real life with overconfident “Cats” who continued to disappoint. I can tell you, if the Cat hasn’t delivered after 3 chances, they will probably never deliver.
The second story, King Looie Katz, is about King Looie, whose tail drags on the ground when he walks. This starts to bother King Looie as being unfitting for Royalty, so he gets one of his underlings to carry his tail for him. Then that underling’s tail starts to drag as well. This simply wouldn’t do, not for a personage so important as to be carrying the tail of the king himself! Therefore, the underling asks another “lower” underling to carry his tail. This continues again and again until the very last, smallest, and the most insignificant person in the kingdom is conscripted and finds that he is left without anyone to carry his tail. In a fit of brilliance, this fellow decides to drop the tail that he is carrying, and pick up his own tail out of the dirt. This then forces a chain reaction feeding back up the line, all the way to the king himself.
Great stories…. but how are they related to Leadership Principles?
As a leader, it is always important to know how to make things scalable, robust, and resilient. This is critical regardless of whether you are your own leader or the leader of thousands. A leader needs to be able to know when to delegate, as well as to recognize an organizational need for training. You need to make sure that both you and the people you work with are not failing to take down the tigers for lack of the tools and skills required to be successful. Most critically, you always need to make sure that what you are doing – or are asking others to do – is both meaningful and important (and not just busy work). That is why it is important to constantly be cross-checking your planning and activities against your organizational Why and The One Thing.
Stories like these can teach very powerful lessons in simple and visceral ways, making an impact that we may carry with us for a lifetime.
Do you have similar lessons that resonated with you from your childhood books? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. Be forewarned; Quoting from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum doesn’t count. It’s a great book, but I’m sure you can do better than an easy “give me” like that.
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