One of my favorite readings as a kid was the adventurous story of Jim Knopf and Lukas the Engine Driver. This popular 1960’s German children novel by author Michael Ende features many a wonderful character. One of the most intriguing ones for me is Tur Tur, whom Jim, the orphan boy, and Lukas, his best friend, encounter in a desert at the very end of the world.
Tur Tur is a very fearsome giant. That is: He is when he is being gazed at from a distance. Actually, the further away one moves from him, the bigger and more frightening a figure he seems.
Once Jim and Lukas gather all their courage and start to approach him, however, Tur Tur begins to shrink. He becomes smaller and smaller, and when the two finally are face to face with him, it turns out that he is no more than an average size guy, and a really nice one as well.
Not only does Tur Tur help Jim and Lukas make their way out of the desert. Later on, standing on a peak at night with a lantern in his hand, the mock giant even serves as a living lighthouse for the miniature island of Lummerland, home of our two heroes.
I regularly remind myself of Tur Tur when I encounter major new challenges, and have told some of my clients about him, too. Is he not a great metaphor for the paradox ways in which we can sometimes perceive reality?
How often when we first encounter a tough situation in our professional -or personal- lives, a situation which we never had to deal with before, does the task appear horribly enormous? How often when we see a beastly giant arising at the horizon of our career path, may we be tempted to search for an easy escape, instead of looking it into the eyes and walk towards it with confidence? The dilemma between flight or attack is all too natural. The ability to see mock giants is all too human.
Even the best of leaders occasionally may feel and think – and perhaps even admit to it - that what is ahead of them is so gigantic that they would rather not want to deal with it. Like Jim and Lukas, managers of all levels may stare at the really big issues, and wish they could just duck and freeze or run the other way - if only they could find a passage out of the desert, with all the sand that blinds their vision.
Tur Tur’s dark shadow falls onto our desk when we hide behind our e-mail instead of picking up the phone and instead of calling in this tough meeting that we know is crucial, or instead of walking over to the office one floor up, because we are afraid of direct confrontation.
We may be intimidated by Tur Tur’s towering silhouette when we postpone dealing with a matter right here and now, because we fear massive conflicts or do not know how to cope with the potential of failure. The scary giants each of us may see in our very own deserts cause a considerable amount of unnecessary procrastination. And if the individual giants multiply throughout a company to a whole army of huge beasts, or whole teams stare at the same mock giant in awe, this will heavily affect organizational efficiency and complicate work lives - and not least our lives outside of work.
The difference between those who when the mock giants appear in stress situations or unknown territory, dare to confront and tame them, and by doing so, are able to lead their teams into the right direction and find the right way out – as did little Jim in our story - and of those who freeze or flee in their sight, is certainly one of the key criteria which distinguishes solid achievers from effective leaders.
And there is yet another valuable metaphor in the story of Tur Tur: The mock giant who starts to downsize into a more and more manageable shape once we start moving into the right direction: That giant once met and put into proportion can become a beacon for us, and a lighthouse for those who look up to us for guidance as leaders. In the future, when confronted with similar challenges, remembering Tur Tur will remind us to identify the unnecessary stressors, and so allow us to be much more efficient from the beginning.
The experience that the last fiery giant we saw was not a giant and not fiery after all, but just a nice and really helpful guy, can allow us to realize that the projections of being lost, overpowered, and set up for failure we or those around us struggle with, may very often be completely unjustified: These perceptions will diminish, then vanish, with every step we take to reach our goal.
I hope you will venture out to meet your very own mock giants with courage and with a smile!
Click here to read the original story (in German only, I am afraid).