Will You Follow Me into Battle? How Leadership Styles Influence Employee Engagement

I don’t know about you, but I’m incredibly excited for the final Hobbit movie, The Battle of Five Armies, to come out; just a few more weeks! I grew up devouring the books of J.R.R. Tolkien, and when the rest of the world was clamoring for the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which by today’s standards would probably be some insane octuplet of films) I was actually pretty bummed Peter Jackson hadn’t started off with The Hobbit. It had been my first ever Tolkien book, and let’s face it, the thing bears very little resemblance to the rest of the fantasy master’s works in that it is undoubtedly, and somewhat incredibly, fun.

So, while my friends were squealing about Aragorn, I really wanted to see Bilbo Baggins and Thorin Oakenshield in action. When that dream came true back in 2012 I was a happy camper and for weeks, the “Misty Mountain” theme was playing somewhat non-stop in my little apartment. I re-read the book and, as is often the case when you return to a childhood haunt, realized that there was a lot more going on in those couple hundred pages of adventure, particularly where leadership is concerned, than my adolescent mind had perceived.

On my first read, Bilbo may have been the main character, but Thorin was my absolute favorite. He was awesome! He was exciting, musical, brave, and wary–everything you could want in a future “King Under the Mountain.” But, what was a little perplexing to my young mind was his rather odd relationship with Bilbo. The two never really seemed to cooperate for long, and as soon as they started collaborating, Bilbo would be off doing his own thing and Thorin would be blazing mad. In fact, it wasn’t until Thorin’s final moments that the two ever truly found common ground, and there’s a really good reason for this.

Thorin is a leader in extremis. He’s the guy you go to when you’re trying to get things done. You need a mountain reclaimed, talk to Thorin; you need a war won, he’s your guy; you want an orc horde routed, look no further! But when it came to the peaceful stuff, Thorin didn’t know what to do with himself. Bilbo on the other hand knew nothing but peace until a troupe of homeless dwarves barged into his parlor, so the two were at an impasse from the moment they first laid eyes on one another. So, how in this fantastical world did the two turn into such a winning team?

If you ever delve into the deep dark hole that is Tolkien’s additional encyclopedia surrounding Middle Earth, you find a whole lot of data on every single character who ever steps onto his pages, including a conversation between the nearly omniscient wizard Gandalf and Oakenshield himself. When planning to route the evil dragon Smaug, Gandalf put quite a bit of thought into which hapless soul he would be roping into the position of “burglar” which is why he settled on Bilbo. It was his belief that Bilbo would act as a soothing influence on Thorin and teach the future king to lighten up a bit.

And, Gandalf was kind of right. With Bilbo at his side, Thorin was a little less intense than he would have been on his own; he mellowed, just a bit. Of course, things went a little sideways in the end and, in the hopes of not spoiling the ending for the one or two of you who haven’t yet read the book (seriously, go read it now!), let’s just say that not only was their quest successful, both the Hobbit and the Dwarf learned quite a bit about themselves by the end of the book.

Ultimately, Thorin was a seriously amazing leader, but he was made all the better for his companionship with his diminutive, hairy-footed friend. Which, ultimately begs the question, “What then makes for great leadership?” Is all of the impetus for outstanding command put on the shoulders of the man (or woman–I still wonder how the story would have been different if Thorin had been a girl…) who holds the reigns, or does it come from more than just one soul? Personally, and everything I’ve read in literature and management education supports this, I think there’s something else at work here too.

Yes, great leadership has a very powerful internal component (as much as I adore them, I would never want Fili or Kili to be leading me anywhere…), but almost as important is the cast of characters you choose to support your quest. Everyone needs a Bilbo, a Gandalf, and yes, a Fili and Kili too. Reading this book again, more than a decade after I had first leafed through its captivating pages, I realized that leadership has as much to do with who is beside you as who you are within. Who is your Bilbo? Who compliments, or contains, your genius to make you the incredible leader you are today? Who will follow you into battle, one last time?


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