How Goofus And Gallant Would Fare As Business Leaders

How might those two characters from Highlights magazine for kids survive and thrive in the business world?

In the age of popular culture, each generation tends to have popular archetypical characters who provide guidance and moral authority to those in their formative years. For those who grew up in the 1930’s and 1940’s it was a group of Toms that captivated the youth: Tom Mix; Tom Swift; Tom Sawyer. For we Boomers and with the advent of television in the 50’s, there was a myriad of moral avatars, including Captain Kangaroo. But my vote for most notable goes for the characters Goofus and Gallant who were – and in fact still are – found in the pages of Highlights for Children magazine.

Growing up, it seemed that every doctor’s and dentist office had copies of Highlights in the waiting room. Perhaps it was required by law. Goofus and Gallant were two boys whose characters were designed to demonstrate acceptable and unacceptable social skills when confronted with the same everyday situations. And the roadmap for how to behave was as black and white as the hand drawn characters themselves. As their names suggest, Gallant was always very gallant and kind and thoughtful of others. And Goofus was, well, Goofus was a doofus. He was rude and self-centered. He was disrespectful; irresponsible.

Just as Douglas McGregor gave us Theory X and Theory Y in the 1960s as two opposed models of motivation and hence leadership, Goofus and Gallant gave us two opposing standards of pre-adolescent behavior, with one being clearly pitched as the ideal (Gallant, of course). When McGregor’s X and Y typology was popularized, many business leaders attempted to model themselves after Theory Y precepts in order to be more enlightened and effective managers.

So, like Theory X and Y, how might the Goofus and Gallant models of personal style have played out in the workplace? What lessons can managers and aspiring managers take from these two?

Amazingly, through LinkedIn I was able to track down both Goofus and Gallant who both retired this year, being that they are now in their mid-60s. Both men ended up having successful careers in different industries (Gallant was a middle manager and Goofus was an AVP when they retired). When I spoke with them they reflected on their eponymous interpersonal styles they exhibited when they were growing up and how those characteristics both helped and hindered them as adults in the workplace in some perhaps not so surprising ways.

Gallant, always the preferred model for behavior in the childhood depictions, found that the personal qualities that always seemed to be appreciated by others (polite and considerate demeanor; always wanting to get along with everyone; seeing both sides of every issue) - qualities that had first gotten him promoted - soon became a barrier to success early in his management career. He was passed over for several promotions because he was seen as lacking "toughness" and in his first management position he was almost incapable of confronting his direct reports about their poor performance.

He found out the hard way that most strengths when used in excess or when used in the wrong situations can actually work against us and that was the case with his pervasive "niceness." He took the feedback to heart and changed his leadership style to be more assertive and to advocate for his positions in a more forceful – but still respectful – way. He learned to have the tough conversations with others and matured to understand the futility of needing to be liked by everyone. And he became an effective and well-respected mid-level leader.

His friend Goofus was also experiencing some career challenges early in his career but for obvious different reasons. He was very smart but found himself getting poor performance reviews because of his abrasive and acerbic personal style. Nobody wanted to work with him and he was removed from several project teams and even put on a performance plan for a while. He happened to run into Gallant at a high school reunion and Gallant agreed to be a peer coach of sorts for him.

He also worked closely with his own manager who gave him regular and very explicit feedback and coaching. It was difficult for him to un-learn many years of jerk behavior but the prospects of getting terminated provided the necessary focus for him. Goofus occasionally fell off the wagon and demonstrated some of his old behaviors, but at least he recognized those situations and he would make amends, apologize and learn from them. Life is indeed full of choices.

In retirement, Goofus and Gallant are now thinking about writing a book on their experiences and are considering calling it "Leadership Lessons: The Highlights and the low lights." It should be interesting.

Mike Hoban is a management consultant in his day job and can be contacted at business-at-large@sbcglobal.net

[Image: Courtesy Highlights for Children]

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