Mary Poppins on Leadership

I recently attended the Broadway tour of Disney’s Mary Poppins with my son.  We had such a special evening – just the two of us!  I joyfully watched his expressions of amazement and wonder as the magic of Mary Poppins unfolded on stage.  I have to admit, I enjoyed it every bit as much as he did!!  It was creative, colorful, perfectly cast and well-performed. 

In addition to the pure entertainment value, I was thrilled to realize that there were some valid connections that could be tied back to great leadership!  As a multi-tasking mom and a leadership practitioner, I decided to seize the opportunity to leverage the metaphors!

A Spoonful of Sugar

The children in the story are in need of a new nanny.  They’ve gone through quite a few, it seems, because they are demanding, rude and thoughtless.  As the story progresses, we see that other nannies respond to the children with equal disrespect and disregard.  As a result, the children are unhappy and the nannies quit their position.

What Mary Poppins teaches everyone in a widely familiar tune is that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”  What she means by that is simply that we don’t need to yell and thoughtlessly demand to get results.  Instead, we can speak with kindness and achieve the same result.

Leaders, be aware of your word choices; not just in how you speak, but also in how those words are received.  Your language should be inspiring and engaging, bringing your team together to work toward a common goal. By choosing a positive, motivational approach, your team is much more likely to jump on board and contribute their best.

Anything Can Happen if You Let It

While working with the children, one of Mary Poppins’ greatest obstacles is getting the children to think differently and use their imaginations in ways they had never done before.  She consistently reminds them that “anything can happen if you let it” and the song reprises several times throughout the show. 

I took the time to reinforce this song and theme with my son too!!  Why?  Because, isn’t it so true that we are often our biggest obstacle?  Our perceptions of what is holding us back are often in our mind.  Many times, we accept them as true without even trying to test if our perceptions are accurate.  And often, they’re not.  We underestimate the people around us, as well as our own abilities…or, sadly, we just accept these misperceptions, because it’s easier than trying to test them.

Leaders at all levels who recognize the need for change need to go for it!!  If the need is compelling, don’t just let it go; take the risk to speak up!  Begin to make the case, have discussions with your team and your peers; get others in the boat with you!  If you’re seeing something “new,” it could be the exact thing that’s needed to take your company to a new level!

With a proactive approach (if you’ll empower yourself or one of your employees!), you can clearly demonstrate your value as a leader.  You can leverage your strengths, as well as the strengths of your team.  A fresh, creative approach is often what’s needed to launch a huge success.  As Albert Einstein once pointed out, “insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.”

Build Your Replacement

During Mary Poppins’ time with the Banks family, she does an excellent job of sharing wisdom and encouraging each member of the family to leverage that wisdom in their own role.  In doing so, each one of them gains confidence, shifts perspective and begins to take on more responsibility.  In essence, they learn and grow.  So much, in fact, that in the end, they decide that they no longer need a nanny to handle the issues that have been solved or the tasks that they can now effectively manage on their own.

Mary, like a great leader, thought about the succession plan.  She thoughtfully considered who needed to grow in what areas and she worked to help develop them.  After building into them, she effectively replaced herself, knowing she would need to move on to another family in need.

Carl Rogers, an influential psychologist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee said this about leaders…

The most effective leader is one who can create the conditions by which he will actually lose his leadership.

Leaders, one of your most important jobs is to bring out the best in everyone around you.  It will positively impact the organization and each person individually.  You should be constantly looking for new ways to challenge your team and to help them grow and succeed.  Have regular discussions about strengths and how you can most effectively deploy each person and stretch them in areas they’ll enjoy most.  In time, you’ll have the best succession plan with a seamless implementation!

What can you do to insert a little more Mary Poppins into your organization?  How can you think differently or encourage others to do so?  If you follow her approach, the result could be as she is – “Practically Perfect,” as the song goes!!!

Erin Schreyer is President of Sagestone Partners, a firm specializing in Leadership and Talent Management.  Erin is a certified Coach, as well as a certified Strengths Trainer.  Her focus is on helping leaders – even great ones! – maximize the impact they have on their people, as well as their business results.  For more information, visit www.sagestone-partners.com or reach out to Erin directly at eschreyer@sagestone-partners.com

Join The Conversation

Latest Comments

Jim Seybert   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

Very nice connection. Any tips on learning to unpack a suitcase like Mary Poppins? Now THAT would be a huge time saver.

I raised eyebrows 16 years ago when as a newly hired VP with a growing staff I told my CEO and his consultant that my long-range goal was to work myself out of a job. When I left after eight years, I had managed to reduce my staff to just an admin by planting and cultivating a desire for innovation inside everyone in the company. They no longer needed me to encourage innovation, it just came naturally. So I left, starting working at home (in my jammies) and all is Supercalifragilisticespialadocious.

Erin Schreyer   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for the comment, Jim!!! Oh yes – Mary’s suitcase would be quite the trick, wouldn’t it?!!?

I appreciate your personal example of replacing yourself!! It’s always nice to have a message reinforced!!! Use of the word Supercalifragilisticespialadocious is iicng on the cake!!! :-)

Gordon R. Clogston   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

Fantastic! You have done it again, Erin. And though I can relate to your evening with your son, mine was over 30 years ago and it was “Cats” that my daughter and I went to, I don’t believe that I would have been able to so artfully craft the correlations as you have done. Very well done.

Very enjoyable read. Gordon

Erin Schreyer   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for the kind comments, Gordon!!! I appreciate your encouragement!!

Kelly Ketelboeter   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

Brilliant connections from Mary Poppins to Leadership Erin!

A spoon full sugar is such an easy lesson to follow. Sometimes though it’s the easiest behaviors that fall to the way side. Refocusing on not only what you communicate but also how you communicate it is critical to leadership.

Often times it’s not only our fear that stops us from letting anything happen it’s also our comfort level. Human beings are programmed for comfort. We want to exert the least amount of effort and energy and reap the biggest reward. That’s why there are so many weight loss programs out there. A quick fix isn’t going to do it. Same thing with leadership. We have got to open our minds, our hearts and challenge our fears and comfort level because anything really is possible.

A true leader recognizes the potential in others and encourages it at every turn. Our role is not to get more followers but to develop more leaders. Managers and leaders that understand the need to prepare others will benefit in the long run, like Jim pointed out.

Thanks for sharing your night out with your son and your take aways!

Erin Schreyer   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for all the reinforcing points, Kelly! You’re right on and your support and insights are always welcomed and appreciated!

Monica Diaz   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

A little Mary Poppins never did anyone harm! I loved your post here and the reflections are sound as always! Thanks for a refreshing view at leadership as it ought to be!

Erin Schreyer   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

Thanks, Monica!! I had fun with the creative twist on this one, and my son will be extra excited too!! A win-win!! I appreciate your support and encouragement!

Lise Moen   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

Really enjoyed reading this. I’ve often thought of myself in similar veins but stopped just short of putting it on my business cards. So ‘Change Agent’ will have to do.

My inner Pippi Longstocking would quite like me to though.



Erin Schreyer   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

LOL!!! Thanks, Lise!! I’d vote to let the inner Pippi come out!! I had debated whether or not this post would be “professional”enough. Seems like people enjoy a playful and fresh perspective!! Don’t let your fear hold you back!!! :-)

Kimberly   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

Great article Erin — really enjoyed the spoonful of sugar parallel. I remember my mother used to say, “you’ll catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar!” It’s such a great common sense approach so why isn’t it used more often?

You can say the same thing to 5 different people and receive 5 different responses; however, if what you have to say is tailored as you have described, there is a good chance for a uniformed positive result.

Glad you enjoyed the show, too! :)

Erin Schreyer   |   15 April 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for the comments, Kimberly! Your mom sounds like a great leader!!! I appreciate you taking time to read and provide your thoughts!

Randi Sandlin   |   16 April 2010   |   Reply

Erin! Brilliant! And didn’t you love that Dad became a hero by doing “the right, ethical investment” for the passionate plant manager. So many great themes in this one. Now if I could just snap my fingers and clean my kitchen life would be awesome!
Thanks Erin,

Erin Schreyer   |   16 April 2010   |   Reply

Thanks, Randi!! Yes, I do love that the Dad did the right thing and was rewarded for it too!!! I’m always a fan of the happy ending!! :-) Thanks for your comments and support! It means a lot to me!

Gloria Bailey   |   19 April 2010   |   Reply


Great insight and active scenario on thinking differently in Leadership!

A mother and son connection full of inspiration.

Erin Schreyer   |   19 April 2010   |   Reply

Thanks so much for the comments, Gloria!! I always enjoy finding creative analogies in everyday life to tie back to leadership – it seems to make the information more enjoyable and more memorable!!!

Maya   |   20 April 2010   |   Reply

Hi Erin,

I’ve been following you on Twitter for some time now and enjoy your take on leadership.

And now with this reference to my childhood idol, Mary Poppins, well you’ve got a fan for life :) Thanks for taking a playful chance on leadership – it suits you and I say keep at it!

Erin Schreyer   |   20 April 2010   |   Reply

Maya, thanks so much for your kind comments!!! I really appreciate your encouragement and am glad to hear you enjoyed the post! Come back again soon!

Andrea Powell Wolfe   |   02 May 2010   |   Reply

I’m planning to see the musical in New York next month, and I enjoyed the connections that you made between the show and leadership. I have also recently posted a blog about the Mary Poppins story, with a focus on Travers’s original nanny as subversive mother figure. Check it out on my blog at http://literatimom.weebly.com.

Erin Schreyer   |   02 May 2010   |   Reply


Thanks for your comments! You’ll really enjoy the musical – it’s SO well done (and far exceeded my expectations!) I’ll check out your blog article as well. Thanks for sharing it!