Social Innovation: Lessons from the Wizard of Oz

After Star Wars, the Wizard of Oz was perhaps the most captivating movie of my early childhood. My Aunt and Uncle were the first people I knew for years who had a VCR (actually, they had a Betamax machine, but you know where I’m going with this) and these were the two movies that I wanted to watch more than any others. Both movies were ‘game changers’ in that they transformed the way we watched films, whether it was the use of special effects, the design of the sets and costumes or the timeless narratives that both stories employed, these were remarkable films for their time and there are many reasons why both are still viewed and loved today. The other thing that these two movies have in common is remarkable characters. Although I could devote an entire blog to Star Wars alone, The Wizard of Oz is more appropriate to invoke when considering social innovation and how we encourage it in our society. [Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie by some strange chance and don’t want to know about the plot, stop reading here].

The main character, Dorothy, is an amalgam of the three (four, if you include Toto the dog) supporting characters: The Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion (and the spunky, bold, dog: Toto). Their collective journey through peril leads them to seek counsel from the wise Wizard of Oz, who embodies his own paradox of being truly wise underneath a veneer of superficiality and obfuscation. Dorothy is also a representative of social innovation in practice. She is confident, challenges the orthodoxy of the current system, takes responsibility for her actions and for improving the betterment of her world, and works collaboratively with others in the spirit of partnership and goodwill to achieve a much larger, collective set of goals beyond just her own.

However, what makes her actions so powerful is that she, unwittingly, reveals the very best and the truth in those around her. After scouring Oz for a brain, a heart and courage, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion find that they had these things all along. Somehow circumstance supported by a larger system made them believe that they no longer had such things. Dorothy, because she wasn’t a part of the system that created these beliefs (having come from Kansas, not Oz), believed otherwise and throughout the movie challenges her friends to see that they really are smart, capable of love, or courageous. She shows the value of being the outsider or thinking differently.

Social innovators are very much in the same situation. They are often told by others who have been tricked by a system to believe that what they are doing is foolish, can’t work or isn’t really good business, or real research, or worthy of spending your best energy on. Yet, because of the Dorothys in the world who don’t “know better”, the flame continues to get lit and the torch carried (forgive the 2010 Olympic metaphors here). When I was doing my Masters degree training in community psychology I recall having a senior colleague, one with many more years of experience than me, laugh and say to me: “you’re so naive and still believe that the system is capable of change. One day you’ll see otherwise”. She meant well. She wanted to save me from banging my head in the wall and getting frustrated and disheartened and confused. I had peers, some faculty, and other leading members of my community say the same thing to me; all with the same good intentions.

Fortunately, I had a mentor in my job who managed to create an entire career of being a “maverick”, or as something I’d call a social innovator. He basically confirmed what the first person told me about innovation being a recipe for frustration, hard work, few traditional rewards, and failure. But he also told me about how it was a recipe for personal and social transformation, how it helped you sleep better at night and wake up enthusiastic in the morning, and how the world would never change if we all believed that it could not, and how it was just plain fun. He believed otherwise and I saw firsthand the good things that he did and the impact that he had on people. Yet, by traditional measures of success, he probably didn’t score all that well.

At least, when you looked day-to-day.

When viewed over the course of a lifetime with the kids, trainees, and staff he mentored and taught? His impact was immeasurable and transformational. Just like Dorothy. Seth Godin would call him a linchpin.

Think about the movie: Dorothy alienates her family, kills the White Witch, manages to put her friends lives at risk, and destroys the cherished secret of the Great Oz that the entire Emerald City believes in all in a couple days work. If we evaluate Dorothy’s actions in the movie, while it happens, she’s pretty destructive. If, however, we evaluate the impact of her actions when looking at the bigger picture, we see someone who brought about the end of tyranny and liberated thousands of Winkie soldiers and flying monkeys from the Wicked Witch of the West, empowered three leaders to realize their fullest potential, and enabled the Great Oz himself to become true to himself while freeing the Emerald City residents to trust in themselves not some great, false prophet. She also found out how much she was needed and loved by all of those back in Kansas. Not bad.

I like this story. It is much like Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” in many respects. It reveals many truths that are not obvious in the moment and lessons that we are fortunate if we can learn in our lifetime.

So will you be a Winkie soldier, waiting to be liberated? Will you allow yourself to find the strengths you have inside and resist the system that tells you that they don’t exist? Or will you lead and teach others that freedom can come and that there is much more inside of you than is often recognized and be the change agent no matter how many Witches fly the skies above your house?

And, despite those witches, remember that those naysayers and ‘enemies’ had a start somewhere and, most always, they were made and not born. And because of that, they can be unmade. (anyone interested in the ‘back story’ of the Wizard of Oz will love Wicked on Broadway or in print).


Ironically, just like Star Wars and Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader.

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