Oven cleaning as a leadership story

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In the field of business consulting, leadership development, coaching, training and motivation, it is a challenge to keep your ideas and your materials fresh and relevant. Story-telling is de rigeur – if you can tell a story that has a moral to it; or it captures a lesson in a simple and compelling way, you are far more likely to have your message remembered and retold than if you lecture your audience on the topic in a point by point manner with no narrative. In the New Testament they called these stories parables.

 A parable is a word-picture, which uses an image or story to illustrate a truth or lesson. It creates a mini-drama in picture language that describes the reality being illustrated. It shows a likeness between the image of an illustration and the object being portrayed. It defines the unknown by using the known. It helps the listener to discover the deeper meaning and underlying truth of the reality being portrayed.[1] 

 Some stories bear repeating, but there comes a point when it is jaded and when your audience’s reaction is ‘ho-hum, here we go again with the one about Rocky’s dog, or the one about the oxygen mask’ and then they disengage. I recall the first time I heard the one about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else, as an analogy for taking care of yourself first before taking care of others. I was so impressed; it made so much sense. And then, when I heard it from another trainer, in another context, as if it had just occurred to her, I found myself questioning the rest of what she had to say. If this is not authentically her story, then all these other ideas she’s offering us – where do THEY come from? How do we know they’re true? It all becomes formulaic and uncompelling.

I’ve even come across a cultural conflict about which ethnic backgrounds equip trainers to tell the most effective stories. And so, not to want to be daunted by any possible deficit of imagination or experience, I’ve taken to seeking lessons and stories about them in virtually everything that I do or that happens to me.

This is then how we arrive at my story about when I cleaned my self-cleaning oven.

This could be a story about cleaning a self-cleaning oven and how all great leaders do this on a regular basis, but it isn’t. It is a story about reflection. In an earlier blog I talked about the wonders of staring at the ocean, letting one’s mind wander, and how gradually ideas and insights form, creating an unstoppable flow of energy. All that continues to be real and true, but that’s not all there is.

In cleaning my Canadian oven I reflected on the women in South Africa who could find no other work than to clean the homes of people like my mother, my aunts, my sisters and me: women who knew how to clean ovens as we did not. Women who took care of our white families at huge personal cost to their own. I found myself full of gratitude for those women who created order and beauty in my life as I grew up, doing things I never even noticed, until years later, in Canada, I had to take care of those things myself.

I thought about my father’s stories about the humility of Jan Smuts, a great Afrikaner general during the Anglo-Boer War, and subsequently Prime Minister of South Africa and a member of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet. He was also the only individual to have signed the peace treaties that ended both the first and second world wars. How does a humble man achieve such greatness? Was he really humble or did my father choose to see him so?

And I thought about the conflict between Smuts and Ghandi, another humble man: a man internationally renowned for his personal philosophy, to which humility was integral. And then I thought of the modern-day emphasis on self-promotion: ‘you have to create yourself as a brand’; ‘your behaviour has to be consistent with the image you want to project’; and so on.

This triggered a short excursions to Google “humility + leadership”, (a great way of avoiding finishing a job almost done). I discovered that the Harvard Business Review has been paying attention to this issue recently. I was also reminded of Ken Blanchard’s ability to play with words to capture an idea succinctly “People with humility do not think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less.”  The Internet offered me the usual: There are pages and pages of ‘3 critical steps to humility’; ‘The 6 things you need to know about humility’; ‘The fundamentals of humility’, and on and on. No, it seems to me the answer about humility does not lie in seeking formulae on how to achieve humility: immediately that makes it about yourself – an egocentric or narcissistic motivation.

Instead of this being a story about reflection it returned to the question of leadership by drifting into a story about humility, which I then promptly hijacked. I confess I blew it by blogging about cleaning my oven. I thought it would be honest and humble to admit that I’m rather clueless about such matters. The truly humble thing would have been to clean the oven, not mention it to anybody, and to show up for my next business meeting as if the oven doesn’t even exist.  Despite my own shortcomings, or maybe because of them, I am more convinced than ever that humility in a leader is a good to great thing.

© Delphine du Toit – Sept 2014

[1] http://www.rc.net/wcc/parable1.htm

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  1. joanewhite on September 30, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    I think it was humble of you to clean the oven even if it could do it itself. You were raised to not do these things but you now do. You could have hired someone and called it the cost of moving but you didn’t. My how you have grown 🙂

    • Delphine on September 30, 2014 at 10:15 pm

      But apparently not grown enough not to mention it in public!

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