An Unexpected Journey: Leadership Lessons From The Hobbit

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31st Dec 2013

6 min read

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BY HUI YI-WEN

One year after the release of The Hobbit (Part 1) and a good dozen years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I am buzzing with excitement as hobbits, dwarves, elves and dragons once again grace our screens.

Like any great story, conflict, hardship and the human (or hobbit) spirit are key movers in The Hobbit’s story and it’s these themes that linger with us long after the swords are sheathed and the slick CGI fades.

In the first movie, our story’s hero Bilbo Baggins is thrown headlong on an epic quest with a band of 13 dwarves intent on reclaiming their ancestral homeland from a slumbering dragon.

Being the 14th member, Bilbo is needed to break the unlucky number 13, and as the company’s burglar, ostensibly because of his small size, is ideal for sneaking into the dragon’s lair.

In both movie and book, we first meet our titular character in a wonderfully English depiction of his abode.

Author J.R.R. Tolkien writes:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell… it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

It is not an action-packed scene filled with villains, flashing swords and sacrificial heroic deeds worthy of Homer. So how does Bilbo progress from his comfort zone, to where the first movie ends – bruised, travel-worn, and yet a leader respected by his team mates?

We take a walk down the garden path and reflect on the seven steps of this unexpected leadership journey.

 

1. Step out of your front door

When 13 dwarves first come a-knocking on his beautiful green front door, Bilbo Baggins is one reluctant hobbit too firmly ensconced in his contented life.

In an earlier scene, Gandalf the wizard tells Bilbo that he’s “looking for someone to share in an adventure”. “Adventures?” Bilbo asks, appalled at having his lifestyle messed up. “Nasty, disturbing uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner.”

But like many of life’s unexpected turns, leadership opportunities are often unexpectedly thrust upon us. From being “volunteered” to run your university’s charity project to training up your first direct report, taking on the leadership mantle requires a leap of faith.

Because at the beginning of any leadership journey, it takes great courage to seek your inner warrior beneath the timid hobbit, and respond with character to life’s challenges.

Once Bilbo gets over the shock of being hired as a burglar on a potentially-fatal expedition, he finds his calling only by picking up his bag and walking out of his front door into the vast, unknown world.

And in the wise words of Gandalf:

“Well, that’s decided. It will be very good for you.”

 
This might interest you: A Hobbit’s Heart: Battling Our Inner Dragons

 

2. Leave your luggage behind

Two pivotal incidences in the development of Bilbo’s leadership journey occur early on in the story. In one, Gandalf chides Bilbo for refusing to join in the quest: “When did dishes and your mother’s doilies become far more important to you?”

In the second scene, Bilbo has just joined the dwarves when he calls the company to an abrupt halt. “Stop! Stop! We have to turn around.” He had left home without his handkerchief.

In both instances, Bilbo is faced with a choice: cling on to what is familiar and routine, or proceed unprepared into the unknown.

When we have to lead through unexpected or challenging situations, how do we respond? Many leaders retreat to the security of what is familiar – past decisions, established practices, stick to the status quo.

It’s entirely likely that Bilbo’s dragging and fussiness stems from vulnerability and insecurity. Surrounded by fierce warriors and seasoned travellers, our diminutive hobbit must have felt under-qualified in his role, and a hindrance to his comrades.

As we walk further in our leadership journeys, we often carry with us the invisible baggage of our past bosses’ leadership styles and even our own early mistakes and limiting mindsets.

By consciously letting go of the false protection of old perspectives and reactions, we allow ourselves to see every new leadership situation with fresh, fearless perspectives.

 

3. Choose your travel companions wisely

In every heroic quest to conquer mountains (whether real or literal), every leader needs a team for the entire journey.

At first glance, our motley crew seem quite the unlikely combination to fight a dragon and win back an impenetrable mountain fortress.

From grossly overweight Bombur to inexperienced burglar Bilbo, quest leader Thorin looks like he faces an uphill task pulling them together.

And yet, the group is stronger because of each individual’s strengths, skills and hidden talents.

Old Balin can’t fend off goblins and wolves anymore, but his calm intellect and wisdom guides the group to better decision-making. Hulk-like Dwalin, though hardly a suave gentleman, is certainly a fearsome warrior.

Beyond practical ability, Thorin’s followers may not be the brightest, smartest or strongest, but he has picked what matters most – they have “loyalty, honour and willing hearts”.

Likewise, astute leaders not only focus on a variety of skill sets within their teams, but recruit those with personal characteristics that fit in to the overall culture.

Beyond natural charismatic traits which are sometimes mistaken as leadership qualities, trust, humility, creative problem-solving and a never-give-up attitude to overcoming challenges are essentials for the journey.

 

4. Carry leadership together

Once past the initial forming stage, teams develop when members become more intentional in their individual contributory roles and take on greater accountability for the group as a whole.

It’s at this point that leadership begins to shift from the first, main visionary leader to shared leadership amongst the team.

As individuals exercise situational leadership and take charge when their particular strength is needed, the group strengthens in its trust, cohesiveness, effectiveness and adaptability.

Bilbo’s first big leadership situation occurs when the dwarves try to save him from mountain trolls, but end up bound and toasted over a fire instead.

With no one else to rely on, our intrepid hobbit relies on his burglar’s quick-thinking wit to delay the trolls from roasting his companions, and through that, saves their lives.

From here on, Bilbo becomes an invaluable contributor and leader within the team.

 

5. Detour on the way

During their journey, the dwarves are ambushed by ferocious orcs and wolves, forcing them to beat a hasty retreat to Rivendell, home of the elves led by Elrond.

Even with their sights firmly fixed on Lonely Mountain, the group comes to realise that plans are not constant, and people are bound to change.

Thorin, ever-suspicious of elves who he views as having betrayed his grandfather and father, learns to adapt his plans and even shares a secret map with Elrond.

To persevere with mountains in your path, when things do not progress according to plan, requires a considerable amount of bravery and character resilience. The dwarves, used to hard lives as exiles, are understandably resilient in their struggles.

Our hobbit grows throughout his journey. Even with his heart in tranquil Rivendell, Bilbo is able to pull himself away from the beautiful place and focus on the tough journey ahead.

Despite the uncertainties of the road ahead, he is able to focus on the moment, and do what he is able to.

 

6. Campfire stories

Early on in the movie, wise old Balin tells the younger dwarves and Bilbo of the tough times after the dragon razed their land and drove the dwarves out of their mountain home.

The lesson we learn from retelling history is that it gives the people greater appreciation for the work at hand. Understanding the triumphs and mistakes of past leaders and past teams gives reason for why the work is important, and allows individuals to become more unified in pursuing a common goal.

Through Balin’s story around the campfire, Bilbo and the younger dwarves gained a clearer understanding of the pain the older dwarves felt – losing their home, losing their wealth, fighting a vicious enemy, and losing their leaders to brutal deaths. But more than that, their focus and determination is renewed, and the legacy baton passed on.

 
Recommended reading: One Ring To Rule (And Make Leaders Of) Them All…
 

7. The journey continues

At the end of the movie, the dwarves survive for another day, battle weary and exhausted.

But as they look towards their destination, there is a sense of mystery and thankfulness that their journey is not yet at an end.

For Bilbo and the dwarves, their leadership journey continues. At the end of the day, there is still a small, intangible need to believe in the magic of the human spirit – a shift in consciousness and limiting beliefs, that it is possible to conquer every mountain.

 

Yi-Wen is part of the Leaderonomics Corporate Services team, helping to grow people into leaders through immersive simulations that contextualise learning into application and action. Click here for more Movie Wisdom articles like this.

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