When I was growing up, some of my favorite children’s stories came from a collection called The Bedtime Story Books by Thornton W. Burgess. They featured an eclectic collection of woodland characters whose exploits were witnessed by Old Mother West Wind and her Merry Little Breezes. By the time he retired, Burgess had written more than 170 books and 15,000 stories for a daily newspaper column.
Recently I have been collecting as many of his books as I can locate and one particular title caught my eye this week because it includes an amusing story that fits with what I am looking to write about. The story features a mainstay character Peter Rabbit and his ill-advised decision to change his name.
Peter’s discontent with his name is driven by his belief that should he “do some wonderful thing, nobody would think anything of it.” Peter Rabbit is just too common-sounding. So he decides to change his moniker to Peter Cottontail and proceeds to inform his many friends in the Green Meadows that he will no longer answer to his old name. Thinking him quite foolish, his friends hatch a plan to teach Peter a lesson.
They proceed to show up with an important message for Peter Rabbit only to discover that Peter ignores them. This happens a few times, much to the chagrin of Peter who is now too proud to answer to his old name but is so very curious about the message contents. Finally, as he heads home to the Old Briar-patch where he lives, his friend Ol’ Mistah Buzzard tells Peter Cottontail that if he sees Peter Rabbit he should warn him that Brer Fox is hiding in the grass. Moments later, as he races away from his nemesis Brer Fox, it doesn’t take long for Peter Cottontail to realize that his old name Peter Rabbit just might be good enough after all.
Leadership in the 21st century often seems driven more by ego and pride than common sense and vulnerability. When a decision doesn’t go the way they had hoped, many of today’s leaders angrily blame their perceived opponents and never wonder if any of the real issues might be emanating from within. Like Peter Cottontail, they assume that position and privilege matter more than serving in loving and truthful ways. They forget that leaders need followers who can speak the truth and know they will be heard; that the elephants hidden in every meeting room in America are already visible, whether anyone has the courage to name them or not.
If only these leaders could see how foolish they appear; how immature and narcissistic they have become. Like Peter Rabbit they had better hope for a faithful friend, some Ol’ Mistah Buzzard, to honestly point out the fallacy of their arguments before they meet their own version of Brer Fox hiding in the tall grass. Maybe then they will admit that being an humble leader is good enough after all.