10 Management Lessons from Harry Potter

To conclude this summer’s Harry Potter mania, it seems fitting to study the HR implications of J.K. Rowling’s seven volumes.

Her novels explore human nature, communication dynamics, moral dilemmas, and social issues, so why not use them as a source of business inspiration?

Consider this scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Headmaster Albus Dumbledore gives Harry Potter an urgent assignment. Harry makes one feeble attempt at completing it, but fails. He ponders other possible approaches to the task but postpones taking further action. (Sound like any employees you’ve encountered?)

Days later, Dumbledore asks Harry about his progress. After Harry describes his one measly attempt, Dumbledore sits in calm silence. He doesn’t yell or get mad. After a few moments, he simply responds, “I see. And you feel you have exerted your very best efforts in this matter? That you have exercised all of your considerable ingenuity? That you have left no depth of cunning unplumbed in your quest” to complete the assignment?

Here’s the beauty of Dumbledore’s performance management technique: by staying calm, Dumbledore keeps Harry focused on the performance issue. Managers who lose their cool miss a teaching opportunity. Why? The employee’s focus shifts away from the business at hand to managing a volatile communication.

Here are nine other business take-aways from the series:

  1. Recognize your prejudices. In the Potter books, we meet “Squibs” (offspring who lack magical skill), “Mudbloods” (witches and wizards with non-magical parents), giants, and werewolves. Various people shun them just because of their “status.” Managers: Who makes you uncomfortable? Discomfort often signals a lurking prejudice.
  2. Treat people as equals, and they will give their all for you. Dobby, the house elf, blows his nose into his clothes, instead of using a tissue. Luna wears odd jewelry and rattles on about far-fetched topics that cause fellow students to label her “Loony Lovegood.” Harry steadfastly treats them as equals. He listens to them and genuinely considers their input. Do you treat everyone as equals, regardless of their job or salary? When you do, they’ll go to the mat for you.
  3. Choose competence over pedigree. Some think Hagrid’s lack of credentials should disqualify him from teaching Care of Magical Creatures, despite his clear gifting with critters. Are you passing over great candidates, because they have diplomas from community college instead of Harvard?
  4. Pause before judging an employee’s potential. Neville Longbottom can’t seem to get anything right in the early books. In one class, he ends up suspended from a chandelier. Physically clumsy and lacking confidence, Neville becomes fodder for pranks and bullying. Yet he emerges as a key hero later on. Have you written off any employees as “lacking potential?” Take a second look.
  5. Speak up if you see what’s holding an employee back. Neville is extremely gifted in Herbology. But his grandmother thinks working with plants is a “soft” occupation and actively steers him toward another career. He begins succeeding when Professor McGonagall encourages him to play to his strengths instead of his grandmother’s whims. Millennials with helicopter parents may be marching to mom’s and dad’s rotors. Help young workers break the tether and find their own flight path.
  6. Avoid saying “shut up and follow the rules.” That’s oppression, not leadership. Dolores Umbridge shows what happens when you saddle people with layers of regulations. Some lose their motivation, psychologically “check out,” and continue plodding along with their heads hung low. Others rebel in disruptive ways. The Weasley twins’ exit in Book 5 is breathtaking. Are your employees plotting dramatic departures?
  7. Be humble enough to change your mind publicly. Harry Potter has many reasons to hate Severus Snape, who constantly makes disparaging remarks about the young wizard. But in the end, Potter gets new information that reshapes his thinking. Harry names his second child Albus Severus Potter in the ultimate public reversal of sentiment. Managers: willingness to admit mistakes builds workplace trust and respect.
  8. Foster collaboration. Discourage “lone cowboy” mentality. Harry and Ron would not have survived without Hermione’s textbook knowledge. None of them would have made it without help from Aberforth, Order of the Phoenix, and Dumbledore’s Army. Does your organization reward prima donnas or great team players?
  9. Break the elder wand. Power corrupts. Succeeding in business isn’t about collecting power. It’s about serving others and improving the world in some way. How are you personally making a difference in the workplace?

If you have additions, I hope you’ll write them below.

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