Mary Poppins on…

John Langhorne / Guest Editorial

Leadership, management and personal competence. At Christmastime, Disney Studios released a charming movie titled “Saving Mr. Banks.” The plot of this movie is the culmination of Walt Disney’s 20-year quest to obtain the movie rights to “Mary Poppins” from P.L. Travers. The product of this plot is one fine movie, if you’re a Mary Poppins fan.

Having enjoyed the movie many times, several years ago I began using it as the foundation to introduce a set of basic ideas about leadership, management and particularly interpersonal competence. Consider the lessons of Mary Poppins.

Mary arrives at the Banks’ home with a clear purpose. She has received a letter from the children asking for a nanny but she knows what they are asking is to fix a broken system, their parents. In the real world, this could be a new project, a promotion, the development of a new process and you could be a manager, executive or consultant. For Mary, it is a clearly a turnaround situation.

In an early scene,,

she begins in a very soft way by pulling a number of large objects out of her carpetbag, quickly redefining the environment and taking control of the situation. She is proactive and the children are no longer running the show.

Mary uses many aphorisms that define key operating principles; these reinforce clear, explicit communication. “Never judge things by their appearance,” lets the children know that first impressions are important but should be treated as estimates, not facts. She has not judged and they can influence her opinion through their behavior. First impressions are hypotheses, if wrong, they drive negative expectations.

My favorite is “well begun is half-done.” There is substantial evidence that initial conditions in complex systems cascade forward and create big changes. People, families and organizations are complex systems. Not getting it right at the beginning is difficult to reconcile and hinders any change effort.

“A thing of beauty” communicates to the children something of what Mary values. Effective people often use personal stories to introduce themselves to others and communicate their values. She intrigues them; she doesn’t frighten them. Managers take note; fear is a poor place to start with people.

With her tape measure, she then assesses the performance of the two children, thereby clarifying the interpersonal issues and establishing a baseline to measure progress. The best leaders are data-driven and the information is usually a combination of narrative and quantitative. If you read “American Icon,” you will see that Alan Mulally began at Ford by focusing on meta-analyses of the organization’s performance and using the numbers and narratives to identify the core issues. It is also interesting to note, although he didn’t fire anyone for a couple of years, several key executives left before realizing that he was a different kind of leader. For him, it was not about blame, but rather, about performance against a set of metrics.

Measuring herself makes an explicit promise about how she will behave and engages the children in the process of change. She is going to do it with them, not to them. The children know, as do employees, what “practically perfect” means. Mary walks her talk.

Mary manages imagination as a tool to focus and maintain their attention. People in organizations also have a powerful tool. It’s called respect. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as fast as Mary’s tool, but it is just as effective.

The introduction of all these elements of interpersonal change are embedded in the first 30 minutes of the movie. More are introduced later, but the fundamentals are there from the start. A couple I particularly enjoy are “A spoonful of sugar….” and “I love to laugh.” It would be easy to use this film as the arc of a class on interpersonal competence.

Throughout the film, there is an implicit theme of optimism. Those of you who read my columns know that optimism is learned and predicts wellness, job satisfaction, marital success, happiness, quality of life and longevity.

The explicit and implicit lessons are powerful. Mary knows why she is there, what needs to be done and shows how to do it. Through her behavior, she drives the emotional context. The children are inspired and the behavior of the parents is changed. Sounds like leadership to me.

“Let’s go fly a kite” indeed. Spit-spot.



John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at His new e-book, “Beyond IQ: Practical Steps to Find the Best You,” is available at