6 lessons about leadership and teamwork from children’s books

Although we strive to eliminate work about work, we’re huge fans of reading (and writing) about work, especially leadership and teamwork. From Forbes and Fast Company to Entrepreneur and Harvard Business Review, the internet abounds with articles and magazines on how to build the workplace of tomorrow. But we’ve also come across timely lessons about work in unexpected publications: children’s books.

Here are six classic children’s books with important takeaways for leading teams and working together more effectively.

1. Harold and the Purple Crayon

Harold is a 4-year-old boy with a vivid imagination. He uses a purple crayon to create his own world by drawing it into being. He draws the moon so he can take a walk in the moonlight; he draws an apple tree—and then a dragon to guard his apples; and finally, he draws a house and a bed so he can go to sleep.

Harold and the Purple Crayon’s lesson for leaders is simple: Establish a clear vision of the outcomes you want to see in the world—whether they’re moonshot ideas or next week’s sales numbers. Teamwork is simply the process of converting imagination into reality.

2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Set in the wondrous chocolate factory of the eccentric Willy Wonka, this classic children’s novel is commonly read as a tale about morality. The inherent goodness of Charlie Bucket is amplified against the greed of Augustus Gloop, the brattiness of Veruca Salt, the competitiveness of Violet Beauregarde, and the arrogance of Mike Teavee.

But there’s an alternate reading here with an important takeaway for leaders. To build a world-class team, it’s important to consider cultural fit and shared values in addition to skills and experience. As it turns out, Willy Wonka was a trailblazing recruiter.

3. Strega Nona

Written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola, Strega Nona is the story of a witch doctor living in a small town in Italy, and her newly hired assistant, Big Anthony. One night, Big Anthony sees Strega Nona chanting a spell to a pot, which magically fills with pasta for dinner. When Strega Nona leaves town to visit a friend, Big Anthony attempts to make pasta for all the villagers using the same spell.

Unfortunately, Big Anthony missed a critical part of the spell: how to stop the magic pot. The town quickly overflows to frighteningly dangerous levels of pasta, and it’s not until Strega Nona returns and blows three kisses to complete the spell that the pot stops. The lesson learned for Big Anthony—and managers and individual contributors alike—is that biting off more than you can chew can quickly spiral out of control. And when that happens, it’s important to ask for help sooner rather than later.

4. The Giving Tree

One of Shel Silverstein’s most popular and beloved stories, The Giving Tree is about a boy and an apple tree. As a child, the boy comes to the tree each day to play and eat her apples, which makes the tree happy. But as the boy grows older, he begins to ask the tree for more things: apples to sell, branches to build a house, and her trunk to build a boat. At the end of the story, the boy is an old man, the tree is now a stump—and she offers the old man a place to sit and rest.

A poignant tale of unconditional friendship and selflessness, The Giving Tree also serves as a powerful lesson for leaders to stay mindful of the workplace demands placed on their teams. When our company cultures are committed to work-life balance, it’s possible to be “productive individuals while not simultaneously running ourselves empty.”

5. Amelia Bedelia

First debuting in 1963, Amelia Bedelia is the lovable housekeeper of the Rogers family who bungles even the simplest of chores. Before leaving for the day, Mrs. Rogers gives Amelia a list of chores: dress the chicken, draw the drapes, and dust the furniture. When Mr. and Mrs. Rogers come home, they find that Amelia has—literally—dressed the chicken in clothing, drawn a portrait of the drapes, and put dust all over the furniture.

The key lesson for teams here? Make sure your teammates are on the same page, especially when you’re working on a complex project with lots of moving parts. Communicate with purpose and set clear expectations from the get-go to avoid misunderstanding.

6. Alexander, and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

In this 1972 book written by Judith Viorst, things go wrong for Alexander from the moment he gets up until he goes to bed. He wakes up to find gum in his hair, he spills a carton of milk at breakfast, his best friend ditches him at recess, and he finds out he has a cavity at the dentist’s office. His only respite is daydreaming about moving to Australia.

If you ever find yourself having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day at work, remember the advice Alexander’s mother gives at the end of the story: Everyone has bad days. Whether you’ve got too much work, or nothing seems to be going right, adopting a resilient mindset can help you get through a temporary rough patch.

We hope you enjoyed these stories about leadership and teamwork. What other children’s books hold valuable lessons for the workplace? Let us know in the comments!

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