One of my favorite memories from Christmas break was one morning that my wife and I watched our two-year old niece. Since we were at my parent’s house, I looked around to find some of my old toys. I stumbled across my old, wooden Brio train set. It is a simple, circular set with a covered bridge. We connected the various pieces of track and pulled out the trains. For the next hour we drove the trains around the little track.
Now, I know that may sound like a simple play time, but let me explain two lessons about leadership I learned in those moments.
1. Differences provide an opportunity for creativity.
As you could tell, my Brio set was not expansive. However, my other side of my family has buckets full of Brio tracks and trains. We can fill their entire living room with a network of trains that would make the Transcontinental railroad jealous. There are straight pieces, both short and long. There are curved pieces, ramps, bridges, tunnels, junctions, and more! Not all the pieces are the same. My small, circular set is put to shame.
Inevitably, dinner and bedtime will come and my nieces and nephews will be tasked with putting all the pieces away. However, the next morning there is new sense of adventure. Kids (and uncles alike!) are given the opportunity be creative with the differences before them.
It is easy in leadership and organizations to surround yourself with people who have similar gifts and personalities as we do. If you’re an extrovert, then it is natural to surround yourself with people who are outgoing and have similar interests as you. However, there is no creativity needed in that scenario.
Differences in personality, experience, leadership styles, and ideas may take more work and creativity. The long-term results, however, may be that your network expands beyond what similar pieces can create. We are not forced to be creative when we have two-long pieces and six curved pieces. It creates a loop every time!
However, when you have a bucket (or an organization) full of different personalities and experiences, there is an opportunity to be creative. You can expand your network beyond what you could do with those who are like you. It will take work and time. The best part is that you don’t have to put these differences away each night and start all over in the morning!
2. Differences are what make the work so enjoyable.
When we finished putting together the few pieces of the train with my niece, we didn’t sit around to admire our little circle. My niece would put one of the trains on the track and pull the engine on its loop. As time went on, we connected the other train pieces together. We crawled, tooted our imaginary horns, and guided the connected trains for the next hour. The size and scale of the train tracks and the number of trains increases when I play with my nephews at my in-laws. We connect a dozen or more train cars to help them traverse the hills, tunnels, and curves around and under the chairs in the living room.
The goal is not just to take an individual train around the track. Rather, the goal is to connect an engine, coal cars, passenger cars, freight cars, and a caboose to link up with each other to navigate your cleverly designed course. But, the trains will not connect if you try to match the positive end of the engine’s magnet to the positive end of the passenger car. The train only connects and works when the different ends meet each other.
Good leaders leverage their creativity to make their team thrive in their differences. They aim to create an experience and culture that is enjoyable for those within the organization and inviting for those outside it.
Good leaders not only realize that differences allow for creativity. They recognize that differences are what will make the organization work to its full capacity. People will watch and recognize the joy radiating from people who worked hard and enjoy what they are doing. The end result is that the organization will go beyond what it could with people who are all alike. A secondary result is that organizations create a culture where differences are valued and contribute (not inhibit) to the growth of their organization. It will take work but leaders recognize that the effort is worth it for everyone involved.