Lessons for Life and Leadership from the Lawn

I wanted to name this series “Lessons from the Garden” because it sounds nice and gardens are beautiful. However, I kill plants inside and out on a regular basis so that seemed misleading. In truth, I spent much of the summer of 2016 weeding my front yard. It wasn’t glamorous, and it didn’t result in any splendid color around the lawn. I toyed with the idea of “Lessons from the Yard,” but I thought that title made it sound like I was in prison. I decided on “lawn,” and whatever you call it, I learned a lot from sitting in the grass for a summer.

 Lesson 2: Tom Sawyering

One afternoon, I was sitting in the shade of a big tree in our front yard. There was a light breeze, and it wasn’t terribly hot. It was, in fact, pleasant. It was a great day to be outside sitting in the grass.

My husband came out to see how I was doing.

“It’s great,” I said. “Very peaceful and relaxing.” He began to walk around in the shade. He was looking down and checking out the weeds. I continued to pull weeds in my Zen-like state.

He pointed down and said, “These are the ones that I like to pull. They usually come out in one piece.”

“Yes,” I said, “that particular patch has the big ones so you can make progress quickly. I did one like it over here. It was very satisfying and fast.”

My husband sat down in the grass and started pulling out the patch of weeds. Then he paused a moment and said, “You just “Tom Sawyered” me, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Yes, I did.”

In our house, we’ve made a verb of Tom Sawyer’s story of whitewashing the fence in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. In Twain’s tale, Tom Sawyer’s punishment for some wrongdoing is to go out and whitewash the fence. As Tom woefully begins to paint, he sees the friend that he least wants to see coming toward him. It’s Ben, and he knows that Ben will taunt him for having to work on such a glorious day.

Tom thinks fast and begins to act like he relishes the work. He acts like he is so engrossed in the task that he doesn’t see Ben approach. Ben interrupts Tom’s whitewashing and says he’s going swimming, and it’s too bad that Tom has to work.

Tom responds, “What do you call work?”

Ben says, “Why, ain’t THAT work?”

Tom goes back to whitewashing and says, “Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

Brilliant! Ben is hooked! It looks like Tom is having fun whitewashing the fence, and Ben wants to have fun, too! Ben barters an apple for the chance to work. Tom spends the afternoon using his technique on all the boys who pass by. He ends up with a pile of treasures and a fence that has three coats of whitewash.

You have “Tom Sawyered” someone when you convince them that what you are doing is enjoyable and fun, and they join you of their own free will, without you asking them to do it.

I have a friend who can get me to go along with her and do some pretty tedious things because she not only makes them sound like fun, she makes them fun. She is whole-heartedly in the moment and enjoying herself. That joy is contagious and attractive – people want to be around it. She has gotten me to organize events, go to football games of teams I don’t follow, and go shopping! I don’t like shopping! However, it’s fun when I go with her.

“Tom Sawyering” is an excellent leadership technique. Really, it’s a necessary skill for leaders who want to enroll people in their vision. You may have a vision that I can follow logically. I can see how it’s useful to the organization. However, I’m not going to get engaged in achieving the goal until I see you fully engaged and passionate about it. If you can make it a fun challenge, I’m in. You will have “Tom Sawyered” me!

I looked up the Tom Sawyer story when I started writing this blog. Interestingly, Mark Twain and I came up with two different conclusions as to why Tom was successful at getting other boys to whitewash the fence.

Mark Twain wrote that Tom “had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

I think Tom was successful in making the other boys want to paint because he was engaged whole-heartedly in the activity (or acting like he was). Tom hooked the other boys with his enthusiasm. He didn’t have to make it hard to attain in order for them to want to paint.

However, Tom did pretend that he couldn’t let anyone else take over the responsibility that was entrusted to him, and he made them bargain for the chance to paint. He refused to hand over the brush until the other boys had bartered with marbles, pieces of glass, and other treasures. He’d already gotten them to want to whitewash the fence by making it look like fun. Then, he used their desire against them in negotiations. It’s a two-step process. First, he creates a desire by seeming to enjoy the painting. Second, he negotiates for things using that desire as a bargaining chip.

My friend “Tom Sawyered” me into shopping with her. I “Tom Sawyered” my husband into pulling weeds. I also “Tom Sawyer” participants in my leadership workshops into making Playdough sculptures for a feedback exercise. “Tom Sawyering” is a powerful tool. When you go out into the world, be sure that you “Tom Sawyer” for good (or fun) and never evil! Think twice before you hold out for an apple.



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