January 28, 2008 5:54 am

Deans’ column: Carol Stephenson of the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario on Dorothy Gale

In the decades since it was first published in 1900, historians, economists and literary scholars have sought to interpret the symbolism of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Some have speculated that the “yellow brick road” represented the gold standard and that the “Emerald City” was really Washington, the centre of “greenback’s” power. Others theorised that the “Scarecrow” was the typical farmer of the era, whose stuffing was knocked out of him by new economic realities. Some believed that the “Tin Man” embodied the mechanised uniformity of factory workers who, through industrialisation, had lost their human hearts. The “Lion”, meanwhile, may have represented the politicians, who lacked the courage to protect the “little people”.

Baum himself insisted his intent was far less complicated. He simply wanted to create a gentler type of fairy tale, and a heroine with whom children could identify. I believe he certainly achieved that and more. For me, the lessons that Baum imparts about leadership in the Wizard of Oz are timeless and perhaps, more relevant today than ever before.

Consider the opening sequence of events, where Dorothy is cast by a tornado, far away from the safety and security of her home, to the Land of Oz. You could liken the tornado to the great waves of change that have rocked business during the past decade, such as the advent of the World Wide Web, the bursting of the dotcom bubble, and the corporate scandals that rocked our faith in business leaders. As in the immortal 1939 film depicting Dorothy’s story, it seems as if we have been transported from the black and white reality of Kansas to the brilliant Land of Oz, in all its stunning “technicolour”. And as Dorothy describes Oz, the world of business today is indeed “a beautiful place, but dangerous too”.

With the rapid advance of technology, the growing integration of markets and the rush to globalisation, business is now resplendent in unprecedented opportunities and possibilities. But, its challenges are just as profound. Just like Dorothy in Oz, corporate leaders must deal with a plethora of new cultures and different ways of thinking. They face plenty of unforeseen risks and unanticipated threats. They must make choices, often quickly. And there are always consequences that reverberate from those choices.

Yet from the beginning of her predicament, Dorothy remains undaunted. She immediately sets out on her mission to find the Wizard, who could help her achieve her goal – to return home. She persuades the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion to join her quest. Along the way, she gains the support of the Munchkins, and eventually even wins the loyalty of the Wicked Witch’s guards. Ultimately, she is successful not only in persuading the Wizard to grant her wish and those of her travel companions, but also in blazing a new path and creating new opportunities for all of them.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an imaginative tale about the triumph of good over evil. But what fascinated me as a young girl, and what continues to strike me today, is not “what” happened to Dorothy. Rather, it is “how” Dorothy’s leadership made it happen.

In many ways, Dorothy exemplifies the essential qualities of what we now call a Cross-Enterprise Leader – a leader adept at building, fostering and influencing a complex web of relationships across all levels – from employees, partners and suppliers to customers, citizens and even competitors. She clearly possesses the three central qualities of all great leaders – the same qualities sought by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion. More importantly, she in effect leverages those qualities to create a powerful team to her advantage, to the advantage of her stakeholders, and to the advantage of her enterprise – both the Land of Oz and home.

First, all successful leaders have a superior mind and knowledge – a “brain” as the Scarecrow wanted. But in today’s volatile and ever-changing markets, effective leaders not only must continually strive to gain greater knowledge and understanding but need to develop sound judgment to employ it effectively. Throughout the quest toward the Emerald City, Dorothy is persistently inquisitive. She asks many questions of her fellow travellers and the others they meet along the yellow brick road. She continually learns. She is also able to think on her feet and to take action quickly. When the Wicked Witch sets fire to the Scarecrow’s arm, for example, she immediately snatches a pail of water, extinguishing the fire and the Witch in one decisive act.

Second, great leaders have empathy or “heart”, which is absolutely essential to creating an atmosphere of trust and respect. It is Dorothy’s heart that convinces the cranky and doubtful Tin Man to join her on her quest. Throughout her journey, she continues to display compassion for others. As a leader, Dorothy never loses sight of the individual in striving for her goal. She helps the Scarecrow down from his pole and continually oils the Tin Man’s squeaky joints. It is in her care and concern for the feelings and needs of the individuals she encounters that Dorothy engenders true respect and loyalty. In turn, her companions begin to demonstrate the same concern and understanding for each other. A team of disparate partners is born and nurtured.

And third, exemplary leaders have courage, the quality the Lion sought from the Wizard. To be sure, Dorothy is often frightened by what she sees and hears on her journey. The cruel words of the Wicked Witch make her tremble and she screams when the winged monkeys carry her away.

But as the Wizard explains to her and her companions, courage is not the absence of fear, but the acknowledgement of real and potential dangers and the willingness to proceed decisively forward despite them. Dorothy is a very brave young woman. She never lets her fear of the dangers that lie ahead get in the way of her journey.

Equally significant, especially in light of the calibre of leadership demanded by today’s corporate environment, Dorothy never “commands” others to follow her lead. Instead, she often consults with her travel companions on the best course of action. She also embraces the goals of her companions as part of her own, inviting Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion on her journey so they can ask the Wizard to fulfil their own wishes. In the end, she and her new friends are not only successful individually they also help to bring new peace and prosperity to everyone in Oz.

In short, Dorothy is a highly intelligent leader who makes decisions quickly and effectively, even in times of great uncertainty. She is also compassionate, appreciating the value of communications and collaboration. And she is courageous, willing to take risks and face danger head on.

Dorothy never threatens, cajoles or commands. Rather, she influences. She leads by example. And consequently, like all great leaders, she helps to foster these qualities in others. Before Dorothy returns home to Kansas, the Wizard appoints Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion as the new leaders of the Land of Oz.

As our research at Ivey has shown, people continually evaluate what leaders say and do.

Employees, customers and investors alike look to leaders to show the way, to make sound decisions and to take positive action.

They also demand authenticity, compassion and vision from corporate leaders.

These are the qualities that engender trust, encourage initiative and secure loyalty.

I believe now, as I did when I was young girl, that Dorothy’s brand of leadership is right for all times.

Carol Stephenson is dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE