Nothing evokes more nostalgia than a family tradition.  When I was growing up, for example, one of our biggest traditions was to make predictions on New Year’s Eve…what was going to happen in the upcoming year, not only in the nation and the world but also in the family. (I recall always predicting that this would be the year my dad would get his book published and my brother, Brian, would finally get a girlfriend.)  On birthdays in my house, it was traditional to get your choice of either an egg breakfast with sausage or bacon, or a lunch out at our favorite dim sum restaurant.  Ah, sweet caloric memories.

Most family traditions seem to be annual in nature (birthdays, holidays, etc.), fixed to the calendar, but one of my all-time favorite traditions was relatively random in nature: the ritual watching of “The Wizard of Oz” on TV.  Back in the day (before DVDs, Netflix and TiVo), you relied on the networks for your small-screen entertainment   When one of the big three (was it NBC?) deemed it time to show “The Wizard of Oz”, the Blum family would cancel all other plans, gather around the boob tube and spend the next 4 hours watching Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger and all those munchkins tripping down the Yellow Brick Road.  Could all those repeat viewings of the The Wizard of Oz be responsible for my current career as a trainer and teambuilder?  It’s certainly possible, because the 1939 classic is, quite simply, the best team-building parable in movie history!

Think about it. Here you have your typical low-level “manager”, Dorothy Gale, under the thumb of the benevolent but controlling Auntie Em.  Upon request, she’s transferred (in something of a whirlwind) from her comfortable-yet-boring position in the monochrome Kansas Department to the new and colorful Oz Department. It’s an extravagant place, this Oz, with a very different culture from her original division.  People talk differently here; they have a different dress code. Adjusting to her new surroundings will take some time and effort, and to top it all off, Dorothy is accidentally responsible for the removal of her predecessor, a certain Wicked Witch of the East.  Dorothy’s new colleagues seem mostly happy about the changing of the guard, but Dorothy discovers she’s made a few powerful enemies as well.  It doesn’t take her long to decide that this over-the-rainbow place is not for her. But transferring back to Kansas isn’t that easy. It seems that all applications for transfer need to be approved by Corporate, way down the road at Emerald City.  So off Dorothy goes to take her request to the boss, a certain Mr. Wizard – accompanied as always by her loyal assistant, Toto.

As Dorothy soon discovers, it’s a long and twisty road to the executive offices, fraught with yellow tape at every turn.  She’s going to need some allies:  a few like-minded colleagues who have own requests to take up with management.  So Dorothy puts together her team, a group of wildly diverse individuals with complementary talents and abilities.  There’s Scarecrow, a flexible, instinctive fellow – not much of a thinker, but with the stuff of greatness in him – someone you definitely want on your side.  And there’s Tin Man, a bit stiff at first but full of heart when you loosen him up, with more heart than he knows.  And finally there’s Lion, full of bluster on the outside, but deep down a real pussycat, with hidden depths of courage.  Together, the team will overcome incredible odds, fighting through a forest of prickly phone-trees and bureaucratic obstacles until finally they reach the Emerald City Industrial Complex, the offices of the Wizard himself.

Like many CEOs, the Wizard hides behind a veil of wealth and power, never really showing his true face.  His mouthpiece, a frightening visage full of sound and fury, insists the team must accomplish an impossible project before their requests will be approved. Dorothy and her colleagues will need to sweep away the competition and get the account of their industry’s most challenging client – Wicked West Unlimited.   The task is perilous; the resources minimal.  But with guts and grit and the valiant efforts of Dorothy’s assistant, the team accomplishes its mission, on time and under budget.

But still, the Wizard is recalcitrant.  It seems he’s far less powerful than he claimed, holed up in his ivory tower, clinging to his position with smoke and mirrors.  In the end, the team realizes that placing all their hopes in management was a mistake.  Rather, getting their needs met was only going to be accomplished through their own efforts and resolve.    Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion all leave to found the start-up of Brain, Heart & Courage, depending only on their own innate abilities. And Dorothy, well, she pulls a few strings, draws on her own social capital, and manifests a transfer back to her old department.   But with all the experience she’s gained from the journey, things are different in Kansas.  Now Dorothy’s the boss – and Auntie Em had better watch her back.

At least that’s how I remember it back at the Blum household.  There’s no place like home.

Oz lessons for team leaders:

  1. Put together as diverse a team as possible.
  2. Encourage greatness in colleagues.
  3. Keep moving, even when you’d rather stop and smell the poppies.
  4. Trust your teams’ special abilities; even your most entry-level employee may be able to turn a witch into a puddle of water if given the opportunity
  5. Be careful of burning bridges (or dropping houses); you can make powerful enemies.
  6. Consider the resources at your disposal; you may just be able to work around management.