Sneetches and Leadership

At their core, the four short tales included in The Sneetches and Other Stories are about emotional and social awareness in human relationships. They demonstrate values associated with successful leadership . . . .

Joan MacLeod Heminway
Interim Director of the Institute for Professional Leadership
Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Tennessee College of Law

Waving a cheery “hello” to all the Dr. Seuss fans out there.  Maybe some of you, like me, grew up with a series—maybe even one of those nifty boxed sets—of Dr. Seuss books on your bookshelves.  The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs & Ham immediately come to mind.  And then, of course, there is How the Grinch Stole Christmas . . . .

But some of the Dr. Seuss books were not familiar to me until adulthood.  Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is one of those.  So is The Sneetches and Other Stories, with which I became familiar when my daughter (then a high school student and budding actress) was part of a summer camp production based on “The Sneetches” (perhaps the most well-known story in the book, from which the book gets the principal part of its title).

The book addresses diversity and inclusion issues in a simple, direct way.  (Not all agree with this assessment of the book or Dr. Seuss’s work in general as it relates to diversity and inclusion, but I reflect here on my reading of the book, which is shared by others.)  “In these four energetic stories,” the Seussville website description notes, “Dr. Seuss challenges the idea that we have to look the same or be the same to find common ground.”  This is a compelling theme in an era of marked racial unrest and political division. 

However, the four stories in the book offer leaders more.  They provide insights on the need for leaders to understand those unlike us as a means of moving our agendas forward and living a full, satisfying life.  As described on the Seussville website:

The story of the Star-bellied Sneetches and their star-less friends is a perfect guide for kids growing up in today’s multicultural world. This classic is joined by equally entertaining tales: “The Zax,” a humorous take on the art of compromise; “Too Many Daves,” which shows kids that sometimes standing out is better than blending in; and “What Was I Scared Of?,” which demonstrates how empathy can transform a stranger into a friend.

At their core, the four short tales included in The Sneetches and Other Stories are about emotional and social awareness in human relationships.  They demonstrate values associated with successful leadership (among other things, understanding the nature of human difference, working through seemingly insoluble issues with an open mind, appreciating the value of multi-faceted diversity, and overcoming a fear of those who are dissimilar from ourselves).  These are capabilities that benefit lawyer-leaders, perhaps now, more than ever.

More broadly, through The Sneetches and Other Stories, Dr. Seuss—Theodor Seuss Geisel—extols the virtues of emotional intelligence in leadership.  Emotional intelligence involves, among other things, responding in a considered, measured manner to situations involving conflict or the possibility of conflict.  According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence involves four domains (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management) and, within those domains, the following twelve competencies exist:

  • Emotional self-awareness;
  • Emotional self-control;
  • Adaptability;
  • Achievement orientation;
  • Positive outlook;
  • Empathy;
  • Organizational awareness
  • Influence;
  • Coach and mentor;
  • Conflict management;
  • Teamwork; and
  • Inspirational leadership.

One does not have to be a strict adherent to Goleman’s work (and there are detractors) to see the wisdom in people being attentive to these emotional intelligence domains and competencies in exercising leadership—including lawyer-leadership.  Also apparent is the connection between the emotional intelligence domains (and several of the comprised competencies) and The Sneetches and Other Stories.  In the stories, some of the competencies are manifestly lacking (to negative effect), while some are expressly employed (to positive effect).

I am not the first to notice that Dr. Seuss books teach leadership.  Apparently, for example, Yertle the Turtle addresses autocratic/authoritarian leadership. And Horton Hears a Who! features motivational leadership.  As with the interpretation of much literature, the leadership value (or lack thereof) in Dr. Seuss’s books is likely in the eye of the beholder.

My work in fashioning this blog post makes me want to go back and read many of the Dr. Seuss stories again—for their possible leadership lessons and as a means of better understanding the criticism of them in the current era.  As I write this, for instance, I am reflecting on how I might use the power of persistence and positive suggestion in Green Eggs and Ham (a book that apparently was written as a result of a $50 bet between Theodor Geisel and his publisher) the next time I need to convince someone to do things they do not want to do (often a lawyering task).  “You may like them. You will see . . . .”

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