What can we learn about leadership from “Amelia Bedelia”?
When recently reading the children’s book, Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish to my children, it occurred to me that there are some important points we can learn about leadership from this story. The premise of the story is simple; Amelia Bedelia starts working as a housekeeper for the Rogers’ family. They left her a list of tasks to perform, informing her that she must do just what the list says. The book becomes a hilarious comedy of errors, when Amelia Bedelia interprets the list in a different way than originally intended by the Rogers’. She “dusts” the furniture with dusting powder; she “puts out” the lights in the room by unscrewing the light bulbs and hanging them outside on the clothes line; she “trims the fat” on a steak with lace and ribbons; and she “draws” the drapes on a piece of paper. Needless to say, the Rogers’ are not very satisfied with the job she has done, and become quite angry.
As leaders, how many times have we done the same thing to our team? Do we become upset when our team members interpret our vision in a different manner than what we intended? Have we attributed this to a lack of educational experience by our teams, or a level of apathy throughout the organization? How effective is our communication with our team members? The vision you possess may sound simple to you, but it may have various meanings to your staff. Many leaders practice the art of “playing telephone.” They communicate their thoughts to senior leadership, who then passes it along to middle management, and so on through all levels within the organization. Passing the buck on the communication super-highway is a certain way to set you up for challenges and frustration. It is imperative that communication consistently flows within all levels of an organization, not the top-down method employed by many organizations.
While leadership has the responsibility to ensure everyone understand the vision of the organization, they also need to set the tone for communication – allowing anyone to question what they don’t understand. In the story, Amelia Bedelia enthusiastically performed her tasks without asking questions, even though she thought some of the tasks were just plain silly. Do we assume our team members know what we are talking about? They may not always agree with what we ask of them, but do they understand the purpose of the tasks we assign? In my experience, I have had these similar challenges with staff performing tasks incorrectly. They were confused on what I assigned, but did not choose to ask questions. As a leader, I automatically assumed my staff completely understood what to do, as it seemed simplistic to me. My mistake was not following up to ensure my message was delivered and understood accurately. This created universal frustration – I was frustrated by the mistakes being made, and my team was frustrated by what they viewed as my indecisiveness on how I wanted something done.
In the end, Amelia Bedelia redeems herself by surprising the Rogers’ with a pie she baked for them that day. Unfortunately, in our society today, mistakes are not as easily fixed with a piece of lemon meringue pie. As leaders, it is up to us to think about the message we are sending and how it may be interpreted by others. We cannot expect our team members to be mind readers if we do not communicate effectively.