I don’t mean to boast, but I’m the dapper, long-eared smiling rabbit in the photo. A few years ago on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, I became the Easter Bunny for the Danville Kiwanis Easter egg hunt. I gave out hugs, high fives, and photo ops with babies, little kids, big kids, and even adults. I stood in the center of a grassy field surrounded by thousands of eggs and watched kids ages 9 and under scurry to the colorful spots wrapping their tiny fingers around the eggs and plopping them into their decorative baskets. Perched on a bridge, I also had the pleasure of pulling the “release hatch” on a giant basket filled with hundreds of rubber duckies to start the duck race contest down White Lick Creek.
After my debut as the furry friend, I began reflecting on my experiences of the afternoon. Oddly, the lessons learned seemed eerily familiar to some of my experiences as a technology leader. And so, whether you are taking on the role of Easter Bunny or trying to become a better leader, I offer the following suggestions:
Be prepared to sweat to accomplish anything that has significant meaning.
Overall, playing the role of the Easter Bunny brought a lot of joy and fun. But, it wasn’t all fun. There were a few unwelcoming parts of the job, like the fact that the suit was hot and rather uncomfortable. Everyone warned me it would be hot, but it felt like I stuffed my head into a giant bowling ball with just enough ventilation to keep me alive for an unspecified limited period of time. And yet, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. (OK, the bunny smile was hard-molded plastic, so that might not say much. But even as I gasped for air inside the suit, I couldn’t stop smiling.)
Leaders, recognize that meaningful change is hard work for everyone. Avoid being trapped by the false choice argument that something is either right or difficult. Often what is right is also difficult, not just for you, but for your team. Don’t hide the difficulty; celebrate it. Your team’s passion to do what is necessary, not just what is easy, is a mark of just how much your team cares.
Support even those who want to run away.
When imagining myself dressed in a bunny suit, I could only picture the enthusiasm of kids excited to see the Easter Bunny. I forgot that some kids, little kids especially, might not have complete confidence in having a white hairy creature with beady eyes and a creepy smile hold them. So, when the first kid in line started to scream when their parents nudged them closer to me, my own enthusiasm and excitement began to fade. But, after reminding myself that “my look” was anything but normal, I quickly replaced my feeling of rejection to empathy for the toddler’s fear of the unknown. I also could relate to the mother that was clearly reluctant to hand her child to a stranger in a bunny suit. My role was to encourage, but not force. I would reach out a paw, so small kids could at least touch my fur. I took pride in knowing that even the ones that walked away screaming may feel just a little more confident to face the big white bunny again next year.
Leaders, be prepared for the fear of the unknown. Listen not just to the people cheering, but also pay attention to the people fussing. Your role is to provide clarity and comfort not just to those that understand and support your vision and initiatives, but also to those that don’t. The best way to win others over is with a steady hand and trusting nature. Certainly, you will face the occasional obstinate person that rejects any new idea. There is also a parent at every Easter Egg hunt that loses the spirit of the activity and becomes a little too competitive in their pursuit of the eggs. These small exceptions may require a firm and direct intervention that isolates or removes a person from the situation. But, don’t confuse a few difficult people with those that are having difficulty implementing an idea because they are confused, afraid, or frustrated.
Show others that you are human.
As uncomfortable as I felt in the suit, I found it very amusing to see how adults react to a man in a white bunny suit waving at them. I would wave with jubilant enthusiasm to people of all ages. Some adults played along and waved back. But others, would look at me, look behind them to see if there was some child grabbing my attention, and then sort of hang their head as if they hadn’t noticed me. Sure, waving at a goofy bunny that isn’t “real” feels a little ridiculous. But, smiling and waving doesn’t make you look stupid or weak; it makes you look real.
Leaders, show others that you are human. Admit your mistakes and be tolerant of others’ occasional missteps. Understand people’s interest and passions. Let them know about your interests and social life and take time to learn about their interests and social lives. Laugh. A lot. It shows others that you enjoy your work, the company of your team, and that you are real.
Maintain a clear vision of where you are going at all times.
The holes in the bunny eyes provided a view of the world straight in front of me, but all peripheral vision – left, right, and up and down - was lost. So, as a mother extended her arms with her small infant for me to hold, it felt like someone turned out the lights right as the handoff occurred. When walking around outside, it was hard to see my feet. But, by keeping a focus on what was several yards in front of me, I was able to better predict and respond to what surrounded me.
Leaders, every day your time can be swallowed by all the issues that are hot topics at that moment. But, the only way to avoid reactively moving from crisis to crisis is to keep your eye on where you want to take your organization. Furthermore, you must not only have a vision for what you want your organization to accomplish, your team must also share that vision and must know if they are heading in the right direction.
Seek the help and guidance from others.
Luckily, I had two “bunny handlers” that made sure that I didn’t drop a baby or step on a toddler. They also made sure that I knew where to be throughout the event and helped me stay on schedule by politely escorting me when it was time to go to my next stop.
Leaders, seek the input, advice, and guidance from your team and take a tip from Teddy Roosevelt who said, “The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good men (people) to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
Say “thank you.”
My heart nearly melted when a little preschooler gave me a hug and said, “Thanks, Easter Bunny, for coming to my house.” That moment of gratitude made the experience completely worthwhile.
Leaders, we often underestimate the power of a simple, but genuine, “thank you.” Often people feel undervalued not because of lack of pay, but because of lack of praise.
In all six of these areas, there is always room for improvement - certainly as a bunny and as a leader. I’m not claiming that I always practice each of the suggestions above as a leader. Each is certainly easier said than done. As the Easter Bunny, I made mistakes, such as unwittingly knocking over a toddler. And some of my best responses or actions as a leader unfortunately have occurred only mentally late at night when I reflect upon a situation that I think could have handled better. The nice thing about leading is that the chance to improve doesn’t just come the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox. The chance to become a better leader comes with the sunrise of each day.
Leadership is also ultimately not about a title. It’s about influence. In order to lead, you simply must have others willing to follow you. I would love to hear from you - yes you. Think about situations where you have led and situations where you have followed and offer your thoughts on one or more of the following:
- Which of the six suggestions spoke to you the most? Why?
- What qualities do you think make a good (or great) leader?
- What do you find most challenging when leading others?
- What do you find most rewarding when leading others?