16 Nov 2018 | 7 min read

5 Leadership Lesson from the Wizard of Oz

This week I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it’s my Dad’s favorite movie, and I somehow had missed reading the book growing up.

The book is by L. Frank Baum and tells the story of a young girl, Dorothy, from Kansas who gets swept up in a Tornado with her little dog (Toto), into a magical land called Oz, full of wizards, witches and flying monkey henchmen. On her journey back home she teams up with a Tin Woodsman with no heart, a Scarecrow with no brain, and a Lion with no courage. They travel down the yellow brick road together to meet the Wizard of Oz who they hope can grant them their various wishes (i.e., to go home, a heart, a brain, and courage).

It’s a fun story that teaches us there is no place like home, and we would all be better off if we believed in ourselves a wee bit more.

Here are five leadership lessons I learned from the main characters in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

1 – The Tin Woodsman

Compassion Should be Universal

In the story, the Wicked Witch of the West punishes the Woodsman by turning him to tin. Left without a heart to guide him and no way for him to return love, the Tin Woodsman rusts away until he is saved (oiled) by Dorothy and her friends. Throughout the tale, our metallic hero is very worried about hurting innocent creatures who cannot defend themselves, while he seems to have no trouble at all killing those who are predatory. At first glance, this makes total sense and is something we as leaders can relate to fairly quickly. Our job is to protect and care for those who are defenseless, have no voice, and are marginalized. But as we take a closer look at the story, there is more than meets the eye.

Although they are clearly in the wrong, the predators are never given a chance to correct their behavior. There’s no warning given, no request for them to turn to the right side, nothing but quick acting punishment.

I know the story is just a fairy tale, but the lack of effort to convert the villains actually bothered me quite a bit. Maybe it’s because I know that most “bad guys” don’t set off in life to be evil. A lot of the time people react to their circumstances and make a few bad decisions, but if given the opportunity, if they’re offered an alternative, if there is a relationship that is built, their outcome might be different.

Leaders aren’t always given the option of having followers who are the “good guys,” sometimes they have a couple of villains thrown into the mix. Do they just give up and label them a lost cause? No. No one is a lost cause.

As leaders, we always have the choice to love people, even those we don’t particularly like.

Compassion is universal.

Leaders don’t pick and choose who they will show compassion to on a particular day. Real leaders love everyone. Real leaders show compassion to everyone. Not just the lovable ones. Even the unlikable ones.

2 – The Cowardly Lion

Great Leaders Face their Fears

Poor Cowardly Lion.

The entire story is him facing danger after danger, and although he feels fear, he charges forward anyways. Cowardly Lion, like the rest of the characters in our story, feels inadequate because he thought he was lacking something or because someone else labeled him as lacking.

So he trudges around, ashamed of his cowardice when throughout their journey down the Yellow Brick Road, he shows incredible bravery time and time again.

Even the Wizard knows the stalwart Lion has more gumption than he realizes.

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

A lot of people mistake the absence of fear as courage. But the truth is, real courage is moving forward even when you feel anxiety. Courage is action. It’s disregarding sensations of dread and jumping in anyways.

Great leaders have fears. They have just learned to face those fears and overcome them. Your fears may not go away, but that doesn’t mean they command you. In his book A Survival Guide for Life, Bear Grylls talks about his fear of skydiving, yet anyone who has seen any of his shows sees him doing this very thing on a regular basis. Why does he do something that he finds so nightmarish? Bear has learned to control his fear instead of allowing it to master him.

Acknowledge your fear. Face it. Then run full force into it. You’ve got this.

3 – The Scarecrow

Experience and Attitude Trump Education

I feel like I’m going to get angry emails for this one, but hear me out. I’m not knocking education. Education is incredible, and most people I’ve met who have had a great education are lovely. But if I have to choose between a team member who has an excellent education and a team member who has a great attitude, I’m going to select the great attitude every time.

People with great attitudes can be taught. That’s the beautiful thing about education, we can always learn more. It’s a lot more challenging to teach someone to have a good attitude. The same goes for experience. People who have done things have gotten a great education themselves. They’ve learned first-hand what it means to fail or succeed. They’ve spent time in the trenches. They know what it takes to get the job done. That kind of experience is invaluable.

When Scarecrow asks for a brain, Oz responds with a compromise, “You don’t need them. You are learning something every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”

What Scarecrow misunderstood, was that you don’t need a fancy education to be a valued team member. A good attitude and experience can get you far if you are willing to put in the work.

4 – Dorothy 

Fantastic Leaders Surround Themselves with a Great Team

Granted, Dorothy didn’t necessarily go looking for the rag-tag group she ended up traveling the Yellow Brick Road with, but she was wise enough to keep herself surrounded once she met them.

In the various scrapes the little group gets into during the story, they rely heavily on each member of the team to escape. As a little girl in a strange land, Dorothy shows bravery, initiative, and quick thinking, but she also proves she knows her limits. For example, when the group comes to a large ravine, Dorothy, Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman realize they can’t make the jump. They each take turns riding on the back of the Cowardly Lion as he makes the great leap across the gorge. Their story may have ended right there if not for the strengths of one of their team members.

Fantastic leaders understand that they can travel a lot farther with a great team than they can on their own.

5 – Oz, the Great and Terrible

Leaders Give Their Followers Confidence

If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, don’t read any further – spoilers ahead!

When the group finally makes it to the Emerald City to see the Wizard, Oz sees a team that already has what they are looking for…they just don’t realize it yet.

Throughout the tale, the Scarecrow demonstrates impressive ideas and deep thoughts, the Cowardly Lion shows incredible bravery, the Tin Woodsman proves his heart, and it turns out Dorothy has had exactly what she needs to get home the entire time – her silver shoes.

The trouble is, none of them believe they have what it takes. So the Great and Powerful Oz decides to give each of them what they need – confidence.

To the Scarecrow he gives “brains” which are basically some pins and needles with extra hay shoved into his head. With the proof of his knowledge, now in his bulbous head, the Scarecrow boldly accepts the job to rule the Emerald City when Oz leaves for home.

To the Tin Woodsman, he gives a “heart” that will rattle around in his chest as he walks so he can be sure it’s there. Suddenly, the Tin Woodsman knows for sure he is much kinder and has a high capacity to love.

To the Cowardly Lion, he gives a vial of “courage” for him to drink. All at once the Lion is ready to lead the beasts of the forest now that he has real courage inside.

What did the Wonderful Wizard of Oz actually give these heroes?


Oz saw what was already inside of them and gave each one the confidence they needed to see it in themselves.

Good leaders see the potential in followers long before those followers see it in themselves. Leaders capitalize on those strengths, slowly creating a safe space for followers to flex their muscles and grow in the areas they naturally flourish. What these leaders are doing is carefully building their followers confidence.

We all have Scarecrows, Dorothys, Cowardly Lions, and Tin Woodsmen in our lives. As leaders, our job is to build their confidence and help them see how they already possess the skills to be a world changer. They just need a little confidence to get started.

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