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My parents read “Alice in Wonderland” to me when I was 5. To this day I can still remember every single character (my favorite was the Mad Hatter, il cappellaio matto).
As I re-read this book to my children and recently received an email from a friend about Alice (thanks, Libby), it became clear to me how the powerful messages of its author apply squarely to the work of leadership and organizational change. Just consider the key four themes of transformation, dramatic size change, language and logic in Lewis Carroll’s book. Themes that seems to come straight from a resource guide of a leadership workshop.
Do you see any similarities between Alice and the current challenges in your work as a leader?
The character of Alice explores the theme of growth into adulthood. Her adventures speak to transformation and what it requires of us. Alice comes into numerous new situations in which adaptability is absolutely necessary for success.
She shows marked progress throughout her adventures; in the beginning, she can barely maintain enough composure to keep herself from crying…Yes: at the beginning of the story she is on her “way down” but by the end of it, she is self-possessed and able to hold her own against the most baffling Wonderland logic. She is not a winner, but she has options. She is no longer unaware of the “rules of the land.”
Dealing with Dramatic Change
Closely connected to the theme of transformation, dramatic size change is another recurring concept. The dramatic changes in size hint at the radical changes the body (and we can apply this to organizations) undergo during adolescence or other times of change.
The key, once again, is adaptability. Alice’s size changes also bring about a change in perspective, and she sees the world from a very different viewpoint. In the last trial scene, her growth into a giant reflects her interior growth. She becomes a much stronger person, able to speak out against the nonsensical proceedings of the trial. Her perspective taking, like in the work of transforming organizations, hinges on her ability to embrace different points of view—understanding the values, losses, and the implications of change for others.The work of adaptive leadership.
Understanding Language and Communication in new ways
Linked to this is the theme of language. Lewis Carroll delights in puns and his books are full of games with language, to the reader’s delight and Alice’s confusion. The games often point out some inconsistency or slipperiness of language. Pointing out the pains and advantages of language, we start seeing language both as a source of joy as well as a source of great consternation.
Again adaptability is the way out: in a world where words are both powerful and deceiving, where we constantly battle—like Alice—with the meaning of “being heard,” where interpretation is not the same as reality, and where the “work” is sometimes just understanding what is real and what is not. In that world our capacity for inquiry and emotional fortitude becomes our lifesaver.
Embracing a “New Logic”
Just as baffling is the logic at work in Wonderland. Like in today’s world, all creatures can justify their most absurd behavior, and their arguments to justify themselves are often fairly complex. Their strange reasoning is another source of delight for the reader and a challenge for Alice and for us. And yet like Alice we learn in time to understand and decipher the logic even when at first when we do not see any. We learn to be at peace while doing that.
Developing our discernment between unusual logic (innovation) and utter nonsense (noise) is part of the game that Alice and Lewis Carroll ask us to do for ourselves and for the world in times of change.Life is not a leadership simulation and yet the message of experimentation of Lewis Carroll begs us not to hesitate when we wander in the unfamiliar new territories we travel to develop our leadership ability.
Adriano understands how to increase your returns on leadership. He works with professionals in world-class organizations that include Philip Morris, Microsoft, the World Bank, Johns Hopkins University, the US Marine Corps, the State Department and NASA. A skilled experiential educator with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of ParticipAction Consulting, Inc., a firm committed to help clients redefine change, collaboration and power in their organizations. He co-authored "Teachable Moments of Leadership" with Jill Hufnagel in 2016, on a learning methodology that gets results by going from PowerPoint to …powerful!