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Gary Winters

Leadership Coach

What Mickey Mouse has to do with taking the mission seriously, and yourself lightly.

In an earlier post, I offered Seven Simple Rules for Leaders. The fourth one is Take your mission seriously, and yourself lightly. Let’s discuss.

I once facilitated a large conference for a company which was in the middle of some very serious challenges from competitors. There was a feeling of “doom and gloom” in the organization, so a conference had been called to get everyone in the room and give them the latest information. If they didn’t turn things around soon, there would be no company very soon.

It was serious stuff.

The conference was set to open. We were in a huge ballroom with several hundred employees gathered. The buzz wasn’t exactly empowering. Far from it. The first speaker or two gave some heavy PowerPoint presentations, sucking a lot of oxygen out of the room. Everyone looked like someone had just died.

It was time for the CEO, Jim, to come to the front of the room and address the crowd. But where was he? As the facilitator, I was getting pretty nervous. He hadn’t arrived before the conference, he hadn’t mingled with the group, and (most important to me, at least) he hadn’t even met with me that morning to go over the final agenda for the event. And now he wasn’t even there!

As the last of the first three speakers (all senior executives) began to wind down, my heart rate began to speed up.


The speaker concluded his remarks, and the room grew silent. I didn’t know what to do. Jim was supposed to simply be standing on the sidelines waiting his turn to speak. But there was no Jim. And no way for me to gracefully leave the stage and go look for him.

The silence continued. It seemed like minutes, but it was probably only one or two. Suddenly a door to the ballroom flung open, and in bounded someone wearing a Mickey Mouse costume.

What on earth? I wondered.

“Mickey” wove through the crowd and made his way to the stage. Everyone was taken aback. What was going on?

He found his way to the lectern, and gazed out over the audience. Taking the microphone, he said, “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Jim, and I’m the CEO of this Mickey Mouse outfit!” Only then did he remove his headpiece.

Laughter rolled over the crowd. They were stunned, surprised and delighted. The mood shifted immediately as Jim began to speak. I watched in amazement as he delivered a very sober, compelling presentation, without notes, and without any slides or other visual aids, about what was going on in the company. And he did it wearing his Mickey Mouse costume throughout. He set the expectations for the conference. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say he “re-invented” the expectations for the conference.)

He concluded by reminding everyone of this compelling notion: Let’s our mission seriously, but take ourselves lightly.” Don’t take yourselves too seriously, he said. After all, no one else does!

As Julia Cameron, in the book Walking in This World, says,

“It is one of the paradoxes of the sustained creative life that the more lightly we take ourselves the more serious work we will probably be able to do.  The more we bear down on ourselves, the more constricted we will feel, and the more vulnerable we will be to creative injury.”

Roz Trieber, on the blog HumorFusion, notes that…

A sense of humor is deeper than laughter, more satisfying than comedy and delivers more rewards than merely being entertaining.  A sense of humor sees the fun in everyday experiences.  It is social criticism.  It reassures the insecure.  Humor is the reaction to tragedy, surprise, ambivalence, incongruity, the weapon of the underdog, and release.  As Lily Tomlin so aptly put it “Instead of working for the survival of the fittest, we should be working for the survival of the wittiest, then we can all die laughing.”

So, here’s the serious point: Take your mission seriously, and yourself lightly.

And that’s an order.

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