‘Twas a Lightning McQueen Christmas

Reflections on Speak the Truth and Point to Hope: the leader’s journey to maturity

By Lisa J. Marshall, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, Iowa, 2004, 246 pages

We enjoyed Christmas at our home this year with Luke – our 4-year old grandson – and his parents. He brought his usual collection of toys and DVDs including this year’s favorite – CARS.

I hadn’t watched CARS before. As Luke played with his collection of CARS cars while watching the video I was getting into a Christmas gift book Speak the Truth and Point to Hope – one of the most personally challenging books on leadership I’ve ever read.

In her book, Lisa Marshall suggests that leadership is best understood in the stories of people and organizations. We learn to lead, she says, when we become the heroes of our own stories.   As I was trying to understand my own story in this context I was drawn into the CARS story that has captured Luke’s imagination.

The CARS movie centers around Lightning McQueen, a young, hot-shot race-car driver – there are no humans in the story, just cars that talk and act like humans – who has convinced himself that he can win by himself. He doesn’t even need a pit crew. Most of the very clever animation and funny story is about the people he meets during his accidental detour in Radiator Springs, a nearly abandoned town on old Route 66.   His brush with the law there is what Lisa Marshall would describe as his “pit” experience.   He’s transformed in Radiator Springs emerging through what Marshall describes as a “wormhole,” leading to his “metamorphosis.” He returns to the big city for the race of his young life.

Among other things, he learned that “there’s more to racing than winning.”   As the movie ends he turns down a lucrative offer to become a poster-car for a corporate racing syndicate.   He returns to his new friends in Radiator Springs, to be with those among whom, for the first time in his life, he’s experienced the simple pleasures of family and community.

I think Lisa Marshall would describe the Lightning McQueen narrative as an archetypical journey from a Peter Pan leader (the boy who never grew up) to “wise elder” leader who empowers young people who are just beginning to write their stories.  Leadership she believes is discovered and renewed in a life-long journey toward maturity and integrity rather than positions of power.

You should not read this book, she warns, if you think “that the current state of leadership – in business, in the public sector, in our faith communities, in education or international affairs – is just fine.”   In her estimation we have too few visionary leaders committed to common good and too many leader/managers committed only to their own success and the bottom line.

She claims that most so-called leaders with “positional power” are merely managers who do things that can be measured. “Because they are fundamentally managers,” she observes, “many of our leaders simply do as they are told.”   They “sacrifice ethics and long-term thinking on the altar of generating 20 percent per year increased return on investment (ROI), or they govern via polls . . .”

The leaders we need, she says learn to live out their own stories through journeys to maturity in “four critical domains: intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual.”   The leadership journey that Marshall charts begins with a time of “preparation.” During this time the leaders learn to hear and respond to an inward “call,” the vision and values that will ultimately write their stories. The journey inevitably descends to a time of testing in the “pit,” where leaders must face down the “monsters” of arrogance, depression and greed.   Eventually leaders emerge through a “wormhole” passage to “metamorphosis” before the “return” home as the “wise elders.”

While these stages of leadership development are not necessarily age-specific nor linear, she does suggest that leadership maturity results from a life-long pursuit of vision and values. As I’ve recently entered the seventh decade of my life I may be forgiven for enjoying the suggestion that when it comes to leadership maturity, “in every way but the physical, older is better.”

But of course experience and age do not guarantee a developmental path to leadership maturity. Marshall reminds us that “we have so few pictures of people who live out their last years in impeccable maturity and integrity, and so many images of people whose rise to the top is followed by increasingly embarrassing and immature behavior.”

The reason, she believes, is that most leaders remain stuck in the “Peter Pan syndrome” – a go-it-alone style focused on “youth, conquest and dominance.” She criticizes leaders that refuse to grow up, who want to “win every battle and outsmart the enemy every time.” If only they could be forced, like Lightning McQueen to spend a weekend in Radiator Springs they might learn that mature leaders find their reward in helping others succeed.

I hope that after Luke outgrows his fascination with toy cars he remembers Lightning McQueen. And I hope that the stories that shape his identity will help him, in Marshall’s words, become a “contained self, comfortable in its own skin, a self that does not lose connection with its purpose, with truth and with other people.”

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