What Buzz, Woody & friends can teach us about culture and leadership - Tribe Culture Change
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What Buzz, Woody & friends can teach us about culture and leadership

What Buzz, Woody & friends can teach us about culture and leadership

Toy-Story1-201x300 What Buzz, Woody & friends can teach us about culture and leadership

Toy Story (© Walt Disney Pictures)

You can stroke your beard and pontificate all you like about The Seventh Seal, The Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane but we all know in our heart of hearts that the pinnacle of cinematic achievement is Toy Story.

The essence of good film-making is a strong plot supported by excellent characterisation and Toy Story delivers this by the shed-load. Compare that with other dismal offerings of the same period, like The Matrix. God preserve us from the near endless fight scenes between Neo and Agent Smith in the Wachowski’s descartian (impressed?) dreamworld. Keanu Reeves aspires to one-dimensional but singularly fails to achieve even this.

Meanwhile back in Andy’s room, Toy story deserves rigorous analysis from a cultural and behavioural point of view. I know, I’ll try not to spoil it for you dear reader.


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Woody from Toy Story (© Walt Disney Pictures)

A flawed hero by any estimation but much in the vein of the Robert Vaughn character in The Magnificent Seven: the boy does good in the end. Woody is vain, egocentric, mendacious and status conscious but despite all of this his heart is in the right place and he is basically an astute leader.

When the film opens the prevailing culture in Andy’s room is one of dependence, the other toys are utterly reliant on Woody to think for them and organise them. “If you haven’t got a moving buddy yet… get one” he yells to the other toys, certain that none of them have yet organised a partner for the big house move. At this point frankly who else could possibly lead the toys apart from Woody, slinky dog maybe (don’t make me laugh)?

Things do move on however and during the period whilst Buzz and Woody are marooned in the Sid Phillip’s house the Toys do develop an independent culture of sorts although coherent action without Woody eludes them. Plainly in the finale we have evidence of an inter-dependent culture with the Toys acting in consort to ensure that everyone makes it to the new house.

Buzz Lightyear

A fantastic study in self-delusion, Buzz really does believe he’s a Space Ranger and initially his own arrogance prevents him from accepting any evidence to the contrary. This is much in the same manner that Nick Clegg believes he is the leader of a major political party and not Pinocchio. I guess in the culture-based safety world this probably equates to senior managers who say things like:

“We work in a hazardous industry and our safety performance isn’t bad for the industry sector so we must already be doing our utmost to prevent injuries.”

‘Head in the sand’ stuff basically.

The moment when Buzz realises that he’s actually a child’s plaything is tragedy nothing short of Shakespearean. This revelation reduces Buzz to the level of ‘Walking Dead’ and leads to the celebrated Mrs Nesbit tea sequence when his confidence is completely shot and he’s started to question his own existence. Woody, in the manner of a good leader, manages to rebuild Buzz’s confidence, of course.

Buzz-Lightyear1-300x225 What Buzz, Woody & friends can teach us about culture and leadership

Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story (© Walt Disney Pictures)

Mr Potato Head

Mr Potato Head is the first to turn on Woody given the slightest prompting. He oscillates between being a ‘Player’ and a ‘Well Poisoner.’ I met a fair few of these characters in my early managerial career in the 80’s. Most of them were two-faced but couldn’t actually rearrange their features to suit unlike Mr Potato Head.

Unfortunately Mr Potato Head shies away from any form of leadership but is quite prepared to snipe at Woody when he’s in charge. The equivalent of Mr Potato Head in the safety world is the individual who complains that safety procedures are too much and common sense will suffice but is the first to snatch up the phone to Ambulance Chasers Direct when there’s an accident.

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Role models chart

Bo Peep

Oh dear – possibly the worst female role model since Jemima Puddleduck, so drippy she should have been voiced by Meg Ryan. A prime candidate for the walking dead section of the role model diagram and not fit to even tend toy sheep in my opinion. They should have shown her delivering breach-presented twin lambs to give her some depth (note her rapid demise from the sequels). Fortunately Jessie from The Roundup Gang in Toy Story 2 compensates spectacularly for Bo Peep’s earlier shortcomings.


Basically an extension of Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all postman from Cheers and voiced by the same actor, John Ratzenberger (did anyone else spot him in A Bridge Too Far?). Hamm is a font of knowledge which he imparts to anyone who’ll listen but at least he has an interest in the world beyond Andy’s Room which is more than you can say for the rest of the toys.

Unfortunately, the world of safety has its fair share of Hamm-type characters prepared to quote paragraph and sub section of the abrasive wheels regulations given half a chance. Mind you we all have our failings in this area (let me tell you about WWII bomber variants sometime). Finally though; you can all stop laughing at Hamm because even as a humble piggy bank he’s several hundred billion pounds more astute than the people that run the British finance industry.


They may be appealing but these characters represent unquestioning religious fanaticism. In the absence of any evidence at all they’ve conjured up a paradise beyond the walls of the cabinet in which they exist. The omnipotent claw is worshipped because “The claw decides who will be chosen.” Sadly this fervent belief, whilst comforting, suppresses rational thought (are cute three-eyed toys capable of rational thought?) and leads to complete abdication of responsibility for their own destinies. I guess the safety equivalent is the work-team that shrugs their shoulders and says “the claw decides who will be injured.”

Next month

Dog Soldiers and what it teaches us about the human condition. Which would be precisely nothing.

Steve Beswick
Steve Beswick