Wisdom of Oz: leadership lessons we can learn from the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion

Most of us know the story of The Wizard of Oz: the Scarecrow’s faulty brain, the Tin Man’s lack of heart, the Lion’s absent courage and their journey to Oz to find these critical elements of self and identity.

As the Wizard informed the intrepid travellers, brain, heart and courage – or intellectual, moral and practical virtues – are the fundamental elements of a developed individual. In our modern-day Oz, they are also absolutely vital for successful leadership during turbulent times, such as those experienced by COVID-19-affected small businesses.

In the story, the journey to Oz was filled with frightful uncertainty in a hostile environment that included wicked witches, flying monkeys and sleep-inducing opium fields. In business, it is much the same, albeit with fewer flying monkeys! Even without the turmoil and destruction of a global pandemic, small businesses face aggressive competitors, economic and political volatility and rapid technological change.  

Small-business owners need the courage to face these challenges but they also need brains to find and use information and knowledge to deal with the uncertainty. Moreover, they require moral prudence – or heart – to use their knowledge and courage in the most effective and ethical ways.

Brains

Sometimes it’s difficult to understand a particular problem or issue, other times it’s hard to know if past knowledge and experience are enough to effectively handle a new issue. Many small business operators may not even recognise their understanding of a situation is flawed while others may simply ignore their ignorance.

It is critical in such situations to employ intellectual virtue, the quality that enables a leader to recognise their knowledge limitations and act accordingly. An unwise leader is one who feels they have nothing left to learn.

It is important also, to strike a balance between excessive confidence and excessive caution: having too much or too little openness to others’ ideas leads to credulity and scepticism, respectively.

When applying knowledge and experience, leaders should regularly question the applicability of their knowledge as well as their interpretations of the business world at any given moment.

Heart

In theory, removing the heart from business decisions may seem easier but ultimately, heartlessness can sour and prove destructive. Unpredictable and emergent business situations are naturally interpreted differently by small-business owners, managers, employees, their families and customers and each reacts accordingly. In such situations, leaders must continually learn, change, adapt and take morally and ethically acceptable and sustainable actions that balance stakeholders’ interests.

It is not just the ends that are important but the means as well.

Courage

Small business operators who lack the courage to make a decision often do so out of fear they will make the wrong decision. Courage and fear must be finely balanced for a small business to succeed. Fear can stop an owner or operator from transforming their business and their surrounding environment. Successful leaders are those who can link their intellectual and moral virtues – their brains and heart – with the practical virtue of having the courage to act and, perhaps at times, the courage not to act.

The journey to Oz was fraught with danger but ultimately rewarding for all involved (except the Wicked Witch). Likewise, the trials and tribulations of small business can be both challenging and, in the end, satisfying. Small businesses need more than just knowledge and experience to succeed. They require the same fundamental Wizard-inspired wisdom that delivered strength to the Lion, understanding to the Scarecrow and joy to the Tin Man.

Dr Ali Intezari, Lecturer in Management, University of Queensland Business School and Professor David Pauleen, Massey University New Zealand

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