When Maurice Sendak died last month, he left us more than his wonderful children’s stories. He left us some lessons in how leaders communicate.
Consider “Where the Wild Things Are” and that book’s young hero Max. Both have much to teach us about how to connect with others and lead.
Most obviously, the story highlights the persuasive power of eye contact coupled with a focused message.
As you may recall, little Max misbehaved. And no sooner was he sent to his bedroom than he set off on a fantastic journey to a “place where the wild things are.” When he arrived, the “wild things” were living up to their rowdy name. Specifically, “they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”
Sounds like a meeting I was in earlier this week. Several executives went on the attack regarding where to go with a particular presentation. I became quite uncomfortable as one executive tried to justify his position.
The defensive executive would have done well to heed how Max calmed the wild things.
The boy said “BE STILL!” And then he “tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. . . .”
So if you want to calm the wild things at your next meeting, follow Max’s example and remember that a tight message conveys confidence and is persuasive. “Here are the three reasons why we need to focus on these issues.” Then hit your messages quickly and stop.
Just as important, remember how Max delivered his message, with the confident energy that comes with strong eye contact.
Of course, the boy also gives us a nice little lesson in leadership. Once he wins over the “wild things” he immediately sets the agenda.
“ ‘And now’, cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start.’ ” And the party started.
It’s a nice reminder that public speaking and communication are about building relationships and moving people to action. We don’t speak because we’re trying to be fabulous. It’s about moving our listeners in a direction, even if that direction is nothing more than creating a “wild rumpus.”
Finally, “Where the Wild Things Are” should remind us of the importance of courage and point of view.
Of course Max was courageous as he faced down the wild things.
Just as important, Maurice Sendak’s children’s stories constituted a unique vision and new direction for bedtime stories.
"Max and the Wild Things ushered in a new era in children's literature,” Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin School of Education in Madison, told the Christian Science Monitor. “For the first time, authors and illustrators began to show young children the world as it really is, rather than how some adults in charge thought it ought to be.”
Similarly, the best communicators have a point of view and the courage to say it. Do you think that the $10 million the company invested in an enterprise software system has been a waste of money? Do you have the courage to say so clearly and support your point? Or are you just going to meekly lay out a few facts and hope that the audience reaches its own conclusion?
Take a lesson from Max and Maurice Sendak. Don’t be afraid to look the wild things in their yellow eyes and tell them to “BE STILL.”
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