The Little Red Hen: A treatise on personal leadership

What the children's story can teach us about the journey to leadership

Like many children, I grew up with the story of the Little Red Hen. If you do not know the story, it is about a chicken—the Little Red Hen—who, after finding grains of wheat, asks her farmyard friends for assistance in cultivating the crop. At each step along the way, no one offers assistance when asked. They do all want to help eat the bread when it is ultimately baked, but then the hen decides to eat the bread herself. What lessons does this story provide about becoming a better person, pharmacist, and leader?

If you don’t contribute, don’t expect to be rewarded

On the surface, this is the primary message of the story. Why should you expect to enjoy the fruits of an endeavor if you have not contributed to the effort? Change happens because someone makes it happen.

If good things are to happen, work must be done—and opportunities for this occur each day. Don’t shy away from contributing when occasions arise, even if your role is small. Often, when you volunteer to help with a project, you set an example of how to think and act in an organization. Until you develop the skills to drive a project on your own, this can be an important step toward leadership.

The culture of an organization is based on that of its members. You can help shape that culture by your daily actions. Contribute to needed change, and do so without looking for credit. If acknowledgement does come in the future, it will be a wonderful and humbling surprise.

Work first, then play

In the pages of the Little Golden Book version of the story, the Little Red Hen’s friends are shown playing games or relaxing, as they can’t be bothered to consider work. While there are times that great things happen as a result of play, usually work needs to happen to accomplish any goal. If we don’t focus our attention and talent on the task, it will likely not be completed.

Be the person who strives to understand the task and works in concert with others to get it completed. You will stand out in a positive way. Your contributions may take away from time for other things, but your effort will pay dividends in the future. They’ll be waiting for you when you get there.

Listen to your elders

At the very least, make sure you listen to those who might be wiser than you. And until you know if they are wiser or not, just listen.

It is particularly important to listen to those who have a different approach to certain tasks, or you will not grow as much as an individual. No matter your situation, there will likely be many around you who have more experience than you do. Gain knowledge and insight from them.

Sometimes learning from your own mistakes will be an unfortunate necessity in getting the maximal learning from an experience. Those with more experience can give you a wider view of a situation than you could possibly have, and that view will probably help you realize your impact on those around you and those in the future.

Why do the work of planting, cultivating, harvesting, and processing? Because you might gain from that effort, and over the horizon, where you are currently unable to see, a tasty loaf of bread is waiting to be enjoyed.

Following someone wiser than you isn’t a bad thing, even if they aren’t a leader. An opportunity for leadership will present itself when you can help rally others around a good idea.

Watch how you use your resources

I suspect that most real chickens would rather just eat the wheat rather than going to all the trouble to live out the premise of this story. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider how we choose to use the resources put before us. When they become available, do we use them up immediately? Do we plan for what resources we want in the future and use the ones before us today to make that happen? This pertains to not only material things, but also intangible opportunities.

We often fail to recognize the opportunities put before us and waste them by not speaking up or doing what needs to be done. We don’t take the time to think through how best to use an opportunity, but then are quick to say we are disadvantaged because the chance never came.

So many resources and opportunities come before us each day. How will we use the time and talents we have? Will we be strategic in leveraging them for the future? Perhaps we will use them to assist someone else who could use some help and only dreams of having what we possess.

Even a small effort can lead to great things

We all want to be involved in great things because they make us feel special. In reality, however, most big things are accomplished by completing a series of small things, and these smaller tasks may seem unrelated to the prize at the end of the process.

We often choose to not participate in tasks because we either fear or know that we aren’t good at what is needed. When we do this, we miss an opportunity to learn something new. Getting started is just a matter of saying, “Yes, I’d like to help. What can I do?”

We, especially as pharmacists, can be our own worst critics. Don’t let that tendency keep you from participating in experiences outside your comfort zone. You must first be a good team member if you are to become a leader. Then, as you do become a leader, you need to not only have the vision to set the goal, but also be able to inspire others to have the same vision and commit to the work needed to complete the task. The Little Red Hen didn’t function as a good leader, possibly because she assumed that her friends shared her vision. As you work with others, you will have to help them to see that what they are doing contributes to a great outcome in the end.

In many cases, the amount of work ultimately completed is more than what was planned because the combined effort of the group exceeded the requirements for the job. Learning how to get the most from other people is at the heart of leadership. In the end, sharing in the group pride of accomplishing a task is something to be savored.

Learn how to make great things happen

If you haven’t experienced it, the smell and taste of fresh bread is a pretty great thing. Who wouldn’t want to contribute to the creation of such goodness?

If we pay attention to what is going on around us, we will see that there are great things happening everywhere, but we cannot be a part of all of them. Initially, we may need to be directed as to how we can contribute. But we learn, and soon that first great thing is behind us. Then, without realizing it, we are taking a bigger role in the next great thing. Soon, we are leading the effort.

How to make something big happen is a learned skill. You need to do it to learn it, and you have to start somewhere. Pay attention to possibilities as they present themselves. Latch on to the ones that make sense, and put forth the extra effort to accomplish something that is likely beyond your expectations. It will take you places you can’t currently imagine.

Doing something for others is its own reward

Doing good things for others is usually part of one’s personal ethic. Most view it as a good thing, but a few will first contemplate what’s in it for themselves. Showing someone else that we care and having them acknowledge our caring in return is at the heart of much human interaction.

Throughout my career, I have helped others in different ways. Whether I was providing direct patient care, assisting a physician or other provider in caring for a patient, or helping a student pharmacist learn to provide care, I experienced the feeling that I was hoping for when I began my career. Giving back and giving to others is a way to repay the blessings I have received.

Over the years, I have been convinced that if you do something good for others, it usually comes back to you in more tangible ways. New relationships are formed. Trust and respect are established. Future opportunities come your way as thanks for doing something good for someone in the past. When acts of kindness are done without thought of return, the rewards have more value.

Begin your own journey

Perhaps I have read too much into the messages contained in this little book. My life experiences led me to take away these lessons, but you may take away others.

Looking back, my journey to leadership began with the smallest of contributions, offered only because of the urging of a leader. Taking the opportunity to contribute, learn, and eventually lead is a choice—one you are positioned to make for yourself.