There’s No Place Like… Work?

We should be encouraging our employees to be bold — to not be afraid to fail.
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When L. Frank Baum published his children’s novel — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — in 1900, little did he know about the literary and creative empire he had unleashed on the world. Since its publication, Baum’s novel has turned thirteen sequels (all penned by Baum), stage plays (including Wicked), and films (including the iconic 1939 film). This could partly be attributed to the public domain status Baum’s novels enjoy, but the more likely reason would be the timeless stories his Oz world includes.

What is not as well known about the world of Oz are the historical debates regarding the symbolism of the original story. Was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz a political allegory about the Populist revolt and the debate surrounding bimetallism in the 1890s? Ever since Henry Littlefield, a high school history teacher, made that claim in the 1960s, there are some (including me) who share his opinion.

The Claim

In Littlefield’s argument, each character (and important story elements) in this tale represented a different component of the 1890s crisis.

  • Dorothy represented the average Midwestern farmer who was thrown into the chaos that was the Populist revolt.
  • The Scarecrow represented the uneducated farmer (hence the lack of a brain).
  • The Tin Man represented the dehumanized factory workers (heartless work).
  • The Cowardly Lion represented William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee for President in 1896.
  • The yellow brick road represented gold (and it of course led to the Emerald City, as all money tended to in the time period).
  • The Wicked Witch of the East who is killed at the beginning of the film (sorry…spoiler alert) represented eastern industrialists — think Andrew Carnegie and JP Morgan types.
  • The Wicked Witch of the West, her sister, represented western mortgage holders.
  • The Flying Monkeys (in a display of the overt racism that was normal for that time period) represented the Plains Indians.
  • Toto (yes, even him!) represented the “teetotalers,” or prohibitionists, who joined the Populist movement.
  • The Silver Slippers (they were ruby in the film to take advantage of the new technicolor technology) represented the silver currency that bimetallism supporters believed would carry average Americans to prosperity.
  • And the eponymous Wizard of Oz represented those in power (primarily politicians) who used smoke and mirrors to hide the truth about their powerlessness, much like the Wizard himself.

People like me subscribe to Littlefield’s allegorical claims because the coincidences are just to great to be mere coincidences. The timing of the first Oz book — 1900 — also places this right after the Election of 1896, the peak of the Populist movement.

An Updated Allegory

Whether or not you subscribe to the populist allegory above, a new allegory (obviously not sanctioned by Baum) may be called for as businesses transition into a more culture-centered approach. The main characters in the story — Dorothy and the three friends she encounters on the way to see the Wizard — are all searching for something. Dorothy wants to go back home to Kansas to be with her Uncle and Aunt; the Scarecrow wants a brain; the Tin Man wants a heart; and the Lion wants courage. Much like these four journeyers, our people, namely our employees, are in want.

“You could be another Lincoln”

In the 1939 film, the Scarecrow sings about the myriad of things he’d be able to do if he had a brain. We often dream about the things we’d be able to do if we were given something that we didn’t have.

“If I had a better paying job I’d…”

“If my boss would empower me I’d…”

“If my manager was more understanding I’d…”

“If I would’ve not picked _______ as my college major I’d….”

Ray Bolger as Scarecrow (IMDB)

Whatever the dream, we often focus our attention on what is blocking us from achieving it, rather than keeping our eyes on the prize. And though it’s easy for one to advise others to “just focus on that prize” when writing articles and blogs such as this, the stumbling block is too large for many to look through.

There’s one problem we as managers can definitely solve, though. The Scarecrow — in the original allegory — represented the uneducated. For the purposes of our new allegory for our cultures, he represents those who long to learn.

It is our responsibility as managers to cultivate a culture of life-long learning. There is a quote that gets passed along business websites, and I am unsure who it is originally attributed to. “What happens if we train our employees and we leave?” it asks. The response? “What happens if we don’t train our employees and they stay?”

Whether they know it or not, every human on earth longs to learn. Whether this is at the workplace or not, there is a sense of joy from encountering a book that changes your life, or discovering a quicker route to work, or finding a shortcut to making your favorite recipe.

It is the leader’s responsibility to fulfill that desire to learn.

“Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

After the Tin Man is introduced in the 1939 film, he sings almost a reprise of the Scarecrow’s piece, lamenting at the end of each stanza “If I only had a heart.” Though the music for Tin Man’s piece is similar to that of Scarecrow’s, there’s something absolutely heartbreaking about the lyrics of this heartless “empty kettle.”

“I’m presuming that I could be a kind of human if I only had a heart…”

“Just to register emotion, jealousy, devotion, and really feel the part…”

It’s easier to be torn apart about Tin Man’s dilemma because we all know how essential the heart is.

Jack Haley as Tin Man (IMDB)

This new allegory presents Tin Man similarly to the populist one fleshed out above. Originally, this character represented the dehumanized factory workers, and this is still a problem organizations deal with today.

Are your employees lacking passion for their work? Are they lacking a sense of camaraderie with their colleagues? Worse yet, is their heart’s mission untethered to that of your organization’s? If so, there’s a piece of bad news — your organization is filled with a bunch of Tin Man employees.

But, there is good news. You have the benefit of knowing that each of those Tin Man employees has a heart that is full of passion for something. With that knowledge, you as a leader have a responsibility to help bring that passion out and to help your team put a name on that passion. Sure, you may find out that their passions may not line up with your organization’s mission; but you will have played a role in helping find them their right fit, and you can fill your ranks with those who do find themselves aligned.

“Just a Dande-lion”

Very soon after meeting her first two friends, Dorothy and company have a brief altercation with the “king of the forest” — the Lion. After our Kansan heroine saves Toto from the Lion, she smacks the latter on the nose; then, the Lion does something unexpected (unless like me you’ve watched it more times than you can count) — he sobs. We find out very quickly that the Lion — a cowardly one at that — is all bark and no bite, because he gets scared really easily. This is not what many would expect.

Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion

The Lion supposedly represented William Jennings Bryan in the original Baum version, but his lack of courage makes him an easy fit in our business analogy as well.

How many of our employees lack courage? How many of our colleagues have brilliant ideas, but do not contribute them for fear of being shot down, or worse yet, being taken advantage of (I’ve heard people fearing the contribution of their ideas, and then being let go after the organization has taken their ideas from them)?

We should be encouraging our employees to be bold — to not be afraid to fail. Courageous employees are creative employees. Creative employees are innovative employees. Innovation builds value. Value is not only monetary; it also brings an intangible spirit that builds an organizational culture that is sustainable and healthy.

The Tether

One character in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz gets a bad rap. The Wizard — within the populist allegory and outside of it — has become the source of the “man behind the curtain” comparison. His character has become a colloquialism for people who are controlling behind the scenes, but who do not wield that much power themselves. But at the end of the story, the Wizard proves that he is a valuable leader after all.

Frank Morgan as The Wizard (IMDB)

At the end of the story, before heading back where he came from (Omaha, Nebraska), the Wizard leaves behind a series of gifts for Dorothy’s three friends — a diploma for Scarecrow, a ticking heart-shaped watch for Tin Man, and a medal for Lion — to help them see that the attributes they were seeking were already within them. In other words, the Wizard of Oz, a showman whose power was only drawn from the creation of illusions, empowered these three characters who did not believe in themselves.

And that’s the key.

Much like our previous post about The Pygmalion Effect, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion finally believed in themselves because the Wizard believed in them first. In this allegory, though Dorothy’s three companions represent crucial issues within organizations, it is the Wizard who is the central character.

It is strange to advise people to follow the example of one who literally lied about who he was for most of the story. The Wizard, after all, is a sort of secondary villain after the Wicked Witch of the West. His best moment, though, was not when he was pretending to be a practitioner of wizardry; rather, it was when he empowered others by believing what was true about them. It was at that moment that he was no longer a wily villain.

He was a hero.

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