Leadership Lessons From a Suitcase Full of Lego


1 Jun, 2014

Lego was the number one most popular toy when I was in Kindergarten back in the 60’s.

It wasn’t the fancy- schmancy stuff that you see these days and which was so beautifully product placed throughout the Lego Movie.

Back then you would buy a box of shriekingly primary coloured Lego blocks by the number of blocks, (100 blocks, 250 blocks etc.), from the local toy store that was run by the parents of the most envied girl in school.

I still remember squirrelling my 50c pocket money into my little piggy bank; counting and recounting the coins until my brother and I could buy another kit.

We would proudly hand over our coins to Mr Love (which I always thought was a great name for a toy store owner); carry the box home and carefully tip the new box of Lego into the stash of blocks that we stored in a large grey cardboard suitcase.

Once the stash was integrated, my brother and I would then up-end the suitcase full of Lego into a huge pile in the middle of our lounge-room floor on top of the Seagrass Matting, surrounded by luminous orange lounge chairs.

Solo Lego

If you have never played with Lego, back in the olden days you just imagined what you wanted, chose the colours and sizes of the blocks from the pile, and then started to build.

Everyone was a Lego Master Builder back then. Building was a process of continuous adjustment. You would change the design when things fell over or when you ran out of a particular coloured block (or if your brother nicked the last of those coloured blocks), or you would add bits to your design when you had a new idea.

Your piece was finished when you were happy with the result, and you either sat back and admired it for a while or demolished it to build something new.

Team Lego

The challenge came when a group of playmates came over to play with our mountain of Lego.

“Let’s build a rocket ship together” one person would yell. “Grab all the black and red bricks first”. People would then fiercely start building.

After a few minutes – “That’s not how rocket boosters look””But that’s how Apollo 11’s look” … “Yeah, but we are building a Sputnik”… “You never said we were building a Sputnik” …”Give it to me – I’ll do it myself” … “But I thought we were doing it together” … “Yeah well, you are just a stupid head and aren’t doing it right”… “But you didn’t tell me what you wanted – I want to help” … “You should have looked at the pictures” … “What pictures?” … “You didn’t look? I put them in a pile near the bookshelf the whole time – you should have gone looking” … “But I didn’t know the pictures even existed, let alone where to find them.”

The heated debates would end in screaming matches or tears; with someone storming off to go home; or an appeal to the ever-mighty adult with:“They are being mean!”

Other play-dates would end up with a different result. “Let’s build a rocket ship together”… “Do you want to build one like Apollo 11 or a Sputnik?”… “Let’s build Apollo 11″… “Let’s have a look at some pictures and diagrams to see what it looks like” … “What about if we change the colour and add in some more windows”… “I haven’t built windows before – how do I do that?” … “I’ll show you a few and then you can do the rest for us” … “Cool” … “Looks great – you are really getting the hang of it”.

Your Business … and the Mountain of Lego

While luminous orange chairs, Seagrass Matting and suitcases full of Lego may be a thing of the past, the leadership tips remain.

Your business is like an enormous pile of Lego pieces in the middle of your office floor. How you configure them is up to you and your imagination.

If you are building solo, then you get to design and build whatever you want, however you want it. You can add, subtract, walk away or keep working to your heart’s content. You can start multiple projects all at once, or build one thing to completion. You are in complete control.

If you are building as part of a team, unless you want things to revert to Kindergarten at its worst, you need to take a different approach.

Building as a team means you need to start with a shared vision that is communicated effectively. Everyone in the team needs to be clear what you are building and what that the end result will look like, otherwise, pieces won’t integrate and people will build things that are not needed in the bigger scheme of things.

You, as a leader, need to clarify your expectations, talk through roles and work together to solve communications blocks. You need to encourage, teach and motivate. As a leader, your role is to coach and mentor – to bring your team along with you.

People are not psychic and unless you use words to communicate what you are thinking and feeling, then miscommunication will happen and frustration will set in. There will be fights and tears; people will storm off and some will take matters to the ever-mighty industrial tribunal.

In other words, if you are a manager, perhaps it is time to play with Lego again, and remember that you don’t have to be Lord Business from the Lego Movie when he said: “All I’m asking for is total perfection”. You can choose to be a Master Builder working with other Master Builders and all work together to create something more superb than you could create alone. After all, that’s what a team is for.

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Ingrid Moyle: Lead Author, Australian Employee Manual

HR Author and Lecturer with over 25 years' experience in human resources and workplace relations in Australia. Lead Author of Instant HR Policies & Procedures, NDIS Direct Employment HR Manual, and Employee Performance Reviews: Tips, Templates and Tactics.

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