Most people are familiar only with the story told in the classic Judy Garland movie. By now, its plot is part of the American cultural vocabulary: Dorothy is caught in a Kansas tornado and transported to Oz; she befriends a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion; she kills two evil witches; and, ultimately, with help from Glinda (a good witch), she realizes her dream of returning home.
The movie, however, tells only part of the story. It’s based on L.Frank Baum’s novel, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." MGM made several changes to Baum’s story, the most crucial of which is to reset the action as a dream. In the book, Oz is a real place. That "reality" allowed Baum to continue the story in 13 subsequent books, most of which include Dorothy and her friends among a large and whimsical cast of characters.
After three more visits to Oz, Dorothy moved there permanently in the sixth book and became a princess. (For those of you concerned about the nuclear family, Auntie Em, Uncle Henry and Toto moved with her.)
So, you’re wondering, what on Earth does any of this have to do with HR? Bear with me. Some scholars have read Baum’s books, which were written around the turn of the century, as a metaphor about society’s struggle to keep pace with the sweeping changes that were taking place then. In this interpretation, Oz—in all its color, wonder, magic and danger—represents the new century. Dorothy, in turn, represents Everyman—reliant on brains, heart and courage to survive in the new world. Dorothy also must rely on guides (the Wizard, Glinda) to help her, but they only help her see her own potential. Over time, Dorothy becomes accustomed enough to this brave new world to embrace it completely.
I’ve taken enough literature courses in my day to know that many authors would cringe to hear the interpretations assigned to their work by so-called experts. In this case, however, I think the interpretation offers interesting lessons whether Baum intended them or not.
In many ways, we’re now in Oz. We’ve all been caught up in the cyclone of modern business and dumped into a wonderland of heightened expectations, unclear paths, wizardly technology and frightening new enemies. This new land is often wonderful but more often frightening. To survive in it, we need brains, heart and courage.
This new world, however, is much more real than Oz. It isn’t going away, so like Dorothy, we must learn to embrace it and finally experience it as better than the world we left behind. Baum believed that we all have the capacity to adapt, and I agree.
If Dorothy is Every Employee, then those of us in HR must be Glinda and the Wizard. As in Baum’s story, this doesn’t mean we have to know all the answers. It means that we must ask questions, coach and guide people in our organizations to find the answers within.
Such is the message of the experts that Jennifer Laabs spoke with in preparing this month’s cover story. They make a strong case for HR to help lead change, and argue that doing so is a key part of serving as the business partner that we all know HR must be.
Oz is a scary and wonderful place, but we all must go down the Yellow Brick Road. Would you rather build it, or merely follow it?
Personnel Journal, July 1996, Vol. 75, No. 7, p. 4.