A fun tradition has recently been repeated in my household for, probably (alas) the last time – I’ve finished reading WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams to my youngest daughter. This epic tale of a band of voyaging rabbits is coloured with hundreds of animal characters, many of them brilliantly drawn with verbal quirks and ticks that make them a fun read for a Dad who can do silly voices (or thinks he can, anyway).
The power of the book is in its moral learning. That’s played out in a way that is easy for children to follow and appreciate. But this time round, I noticed more clearly how there’s a lesson for adults in the workplace too – the fantastic leadership skills of Hazel, the ordinary gang member who rises to become “Chief Rabbit” because of his intelligence, courage and work ethic.
Partly what we’re being told here is that those three qualities will get you to the top if and when others appreciate that they are the stuff you’re made of. They’re the blobs of glue that make people stick to you. But more than this, there are two moments in the book when Hazel demonstrates the very best qualities of leaders, moments that every senior person in business should emulate – (i) his mature and solid response to criticism, and (ii) his ability to command in a crisis even when he himself is unsure of the technicalities of the agreed solution.
(i) Here’s page 61 of my Penguin edition (slightly edited):
“Hazel,” said Hawkbit, “we feel that we can’t go on like this. We’ve had enough of it.”
He stopped. Hazel now saw that Speedwell and Acorn were behind him, listening expectantly. There was a pause.
“Go on, Hawkbit,” said Speedwell, “or shall I?”
“More than enough,” said Hawkbit.
“Well, so have I,” answered Hazel, “and I hope there won’t be much more. Then we can all have a rest.”
“We want to stop now,” said Speedwell. “We think it was stupid to come so far.”
“I don’t like this place myself,” replied Hazel, “but it won’t go on for ever.”
Hawkbit looked sly and shifty. “We don’t believe you know where we’re going,” he said. “You didn’t know about that road, did you? And you don’t know what there is in front of us.”
“Look,” said Hazel. “Suppose you tell me what you want to do, and I’ll tell you what I think about it.”
Well done, Hazel. Like every leader, he’s presented with an amorphous and slightly foolish resistance to his plan of activity. There might be several different motivations driving that resistance. But it doesn’t get his back up, he doesn’t launch straight into self-justification, and he doesn’t invalidate the complaint. In a mature and solid way, he empathises, and then he openly and straightforwardly invites a discussion.
(ii) And here, from pages 304-8:
Hazel said: “The trouble is, I can see how to start but not how to finish.” […] “What’s stopping it [the rowing-boat] from going down the river?”
“Ees rope [said Keehar]. You bite heem, den you go damn qveek, all de vay.”
“Yes I see,” said Fiver. “The rope goes round that metal thing. You could gnaw it through and the boat would drop off the bank.”
“Here, wait a moment,” said Hazel. “I’m just a simple rabbit. Do you mind explaining?”
“You do heem qveek, ya?” said Keehar. “Maybe something change. Man come, take poat, you know?”
“There’s nothing more to wait for,” said Hazel. “Go on, straight away.”
Ten out of ten for Leadership from Hazel again. It wasn’t his idea and he doesn’t really understand it, but he recognises the confidence of those who do, he understands the imperative of time, and he backs them straight away. Those around you will expect you to take calculated risks; risk-taking is a key component of charisma. Of course that doesn’t mean displaying foolhardiness, but it does mean that always “playing safe” won’t be respected. If I were a rabbit, I’d want to live in Hazel’s warren.
But now my youngest daughter has sat through my entire repertoire of voices – so that’s the end of WATERSHIP DOWN for me. No wait hang on…I might have grandchildren one day…lucky them, I say.