“You are the first king we haven’t eaten”

Where the Wild Things Are

I’m not a big fan of fantasy novels and movies—weird beings and lands don’t generally relate to my view of the world. But fantasies have proven to be of enormous significance through the centuries as lessons of some kind. Think of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Homer’s The Iliad, or C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Therefore, I noted with interest the release this weekend of Where the Wild Things Are, a movie based on the book by Maurice Sendak. It happened that my family wanted to see the show. The early reviews of the movie have been positive. Therefore, early this evening I found myself walking out of the theatre with family members who were scratching their heads, wondering what that was all about?

Any synopsis of the plot understates the predicament of a young boy who finds himself vaulted into a land of fearsome and unpredictable beings. Loaded with conflicts, envy, uncontrolled anger, and enough hurt feelings to populate a soap opera, psychiatrists will have a field day with the story. The core problem for the boy is to survive amidst these beings, and particularly to avoid being eaten. He tells a lie: he is a king with vast powers. One of the fearsome beings asks, “Can you make us happy?” Yes, the boy says. The wild things melt at the thought; it seems that they have been rather, well, beastly to one another until the boy appeared. There follow several vignettes of growing unity within this group. Then one beast challenges the boy’s supposed powers . Other beasts defend the boy. There is a coming-to-terms among them and the boy decides to return home. All in all, it’s an exciting action-filled plot, with nicely-developed characters, and ultimately, warm sentiments.

As the boy departs, one wild thing says, “You are the first king we haven’t eaten.” What can Maurice Sendak have been saying?

I choose to think that this is an allegory about leadership and followership. What does it take for the leader not to be “eaten”? Followers can consume leaders in a variety of ways. Think of Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, or Lieutenant Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny—in my book, Deals from Hell, I profiled Pehr Gyllenhammar, CEO of Volvo, who was cashiered when his employees rebelled at the thought of a merger with Renault.

The boy in Sendak’s story portrays a profile in courage, a well-trodden path in the literature on leadership. But the boy offers two other attributes also worthy of note. First, the boy offers hope that the group will become happy again. I think that hope is a gift that leaders necessarily must bring to their followers. Some of the more inspiring presidents—think of Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope and Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America”—succeeded in conveying hope to Americans in trying times. Second, the boy engages the wild things where they are and in the way they like to be engaged, in wild playful games. The leader and his followers have fun together.

The parallels between the boy’s experiences and those of leaders are unmistakable. (Professionals of all kinds, including academicians (especially university Presidents, Provosts, Deans, and Dean wannabees) will compare professional life and the community of wild things.) I would encourage students of leadership—at least those who can digest fantasy-type plots—to see Where the Wild Things Are.