Leadership Lessons from Children’s Books

May 6, 2014

By: Adam Grant

Originally posted on Adam Grant’s LinkedIn page

Being a leader is a complex task, but the defining moments of great leadership can be surprisingly simple. As a father of three kids under six, I’ve noticed some striking parallels between the morals of bedtime stories and the legacies of illustrious leaders.

If I were building a leadership library, I would stock it with these nine children’s books. Each captures a key decision of a favorite leader, and matches up with research evidence:

1. Beautiful Oops!

Lesson: mistakes open the door to creativity and innovation.

Archetype: chemist Spencer Silver. While trying to strengthen an adhesive, he accidentally invented a glue that wasn’t permanent. A decade later, it became the Post-It Note.

Evidence: when leaders make it safe to take risks, firms innovate more and achieve higher returns.

2. The Giving Tree

Lesson: great leaders put others’ interests first.

Archetype: Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, who were running a division of a film company. When a new president called for layoffs, he asked Catmull and Smith to submit a list of names. They came back with a total of two names: their own. The president backed off, and a few months later Catmull and Smith started a little company called Pixar with Steve Jobs.

Evidence: when technology CEOs are rated by their top management teams as caring about other people, their firms have higher performance.

3. Miss Nelson Is Missing

Lesson: Tough love goes a long way.

Archetype: Jeff Bezos. When he spots a typo in an Amazon memo, he sends it back to the author, stating that he found typos—but not revealing where. The author ends up finding some additional errors, and learns to be more careful in the future.

Evidence: leaders who challenge their employees and hold them to high standards guide their organizations to better performance.

4. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day

Lesson: we all have bad days. Get over it.

Archetype: Sallie Krawcheck. As the most powerful woman on Wall Street, she was fired from Smith Barney. She kept her head up, sought feedback on how she could have improved, and became the head of Merrill Lynch, Bank of America’s wealth management business.

Evidence: leaders who actively seek negative feedback learn more and perform better.

5. The Lorax

Lesson: in the long run, organizations can’t survive if they don’t take care of their environments.

Archetype: Jochen Zeitz. Recognizing that what gets measured gets noticed, the PUMA executive chairman championed an environmental profit & loss statement, documenting parent company PPR’s negative environmental impact of £124m in 2010.

Evidence: green management can increase profits by improving market access, better differentiating products, enabling companies to develop and sell new technology, strengthening stakeholder relations, and reducing costs of materials, services, capital, and labor.

6. Are You My Mother?

Lesson: successful leaders create shared identities.

Archetype: Alan Mulally. Ford was struggling until Mulally brought a vision for “One Ford” that aligned leaders and employees worldwide toward a common goal.

Evidence: when leaders articulate a shared vision, companies grow faster.

7. First Day Jitters

Lesson: even seasoned leaders get anxious; it signals that they care and fuels them to prepare.

Archetype: Andy Grove. The Intel CEO chalks his success up to worrying constantly about people, products, and competitors.

Evidence: when presidents aren’t too positive about the future in their inauguration addresses, the economy does better.

8. The Little Engine That Could

Lesson: leaders instill confidence in trying times.

Archetype: Martin Luther King, Jr. “We cannot turn back,” he boomed, galvanizing the civil rights movement with his dream that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Evidence: in crisis situations, effective leaders are the ones who build hope.

9. Everyone Poops

Lesson: No one is perfect; we’re all human.

Archetype: Thomas Watson Jr. According to legend, a vice president failed on a project that cost IBM about $10 million, and brought his resignation letter to Watson. Instead of firing him, Watson told him he couldn’t leave, because the company just paid $10 million for his education.

Evidence: everyone poops. Enough said.

(Oh, and studies suggest that when leaders frame failures as learning opportunities, patients are less likely to die in hospitals.)

This post was inspired by Nick Green, who wrote a wonderful piece about 10 business books that could be based on classic children’s books.

Adam Grant is a Wharton professor and the author of Give and Take, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller about the hidden power of helping others. He is a member of the Center for Positive Organizations’ Research Advisory Board.