Building a Band of Merry Men

Posted by Doc
Mar 10 2009
[This is the first in a series of stories I wrote about leadership, using the context of Robin Hood to tell them. While these stories are available on my “main” website, I know that many of my readers are only reading my blog. So I’m reproducing them here.]

We all know the stories of “Robin Hood and His Band of Merry Men.” What we tend to forget is that they weren’t really all that merry when it all started.

Picture the time and place – 12th Century England, when the Saxons – the English – were under the rule of the Normans – the French-speaking descendants of the Vikings. People were largely dirty, hungry, and ill-clothed. When it was cold, they were probably cold. When it was rainy, they probably got wet.

Merry? I don’t think so!

And this is where Robin Hood comes in. His band was no doubt made up of a group of men who couldn’t quite fit in elsewhere, or were outlaws or outcasts or just too poor to live anywhere but in the forest.

Robin was a revolutionary and a patriot. He believed in his king and his country, and wanted to set things right. And he set out to do it with the ill-washed, ill-fed, unhappy, cold and wet denizens of the forest. There’s a challenge for you!

I imagine the situation something like this…

Robin is strolling through the forest, one dreary day. He comes upon a strangely cheerful fellow sitting and playing on his lute. “Good day to you, sirrah!” says Robin. He’s got plans, after all, and is generally friendly to folks in his forest.

“And a fine, if somewhat dreary, day to you as well,” responds the fellow.

“What brings you out into the forest, friend?” asks Robin.

“Let me tell you my story,” says the fellow. “I’ve been happily working as a performing minstrel in yon town for some time now. But with our noble King Richard abroad, things have been changing steadily for the worse.

“Recently, I had sought to gather a small performing troupe, as I’ve found from time to time that I can get groups of folks to work together. Alas, the minions of Prince John and his lackey the Sheriff told me that I must pay a ‘license fee’ in order to gather such a group and perform.

“Upon due thought, I decided that a life in the forest, playing for the wild animals and the random passers-by, was preferable to staying any longer in the town.”

Robin, having been exposed to his fair share of human nature, is a bit skeptical about the real reasons for the fellow’s departure. But having no reason to argue, he lets it lie. Robin asks “And may I know your name, friend?”

To which the fellow responds “Alan a Dale, Bard and Minstrel! And you, sirrah?”

Robin hesitates briefly, as he is already making quite a name for himself in the forest. But he decides to take the risk and shares his name.

“Art truly the Robin Hood?” asks Alan a Dale.

“Indeed, I am he,” responds Robin.

As unimportant as this conversation might seem, it was a critical time for Robin, and meeting Alan a Dale was destined to be a pivotal event for Robin. After all, Robin was in many ways a visionary, and while he had a picture in his head of what he wanted to do to set things in England to rights, that’s very different from having a plan and making that plan into reality.

As they got to know each other, Robin discovered that in spite of seeming to be flighty and uncaring, Alan a Dale was really quite the pragmatic. When it came to finding wood for a fire, Alan seemed to know where to look. When it came to knowing how to prepare food, Alan seemed to have those skills as well. But most important, Alan had the knack and the skill of moving and organizing people.

Although Robin was no slouch in these matters, he knew very early on that he would need skilled lieutenants if he was to succeed. And so Alan a Dale quickly became Robin’s lieutenant.

Now while skills at organizing people weren’t all that important when Robin and Alan first met, they soon began recruiting other unfortunates they found in the forest. Having been forced out of their homes and driven to largely unhappy, solitary lives, these men and women were not really anyone’s definition of the perfect choice for building a tight-knit band of revolutionaries.

  • Some of them were highly independent, but not all.
  • Some of them were highly intelligent, but not all.
  • Some of them had special skills, but not all.
  • Some of them had experience working well with others, but not all.
  • Some of them had experience leading others, but not many.
  • And when they first met, none of them had Robin’s vision of the future.

Robin was lucky – he had an able lieutenant to help him.

They began by explaining the mission – helping to unite an English (Saxon) England in preparation for the return of Richard the Lionhearted; promoting peace as much as possible, but using violence where necessary; helping the poor and disenfranchised to survive.

And they shared the vision – a united, peaceful England where people could live and work without fear of death or starvation.

Alan, as Robin’s first lieutenant, and being a minstrel, set about creating some songs and rhymes that told of Robin’s vision and his mission. And he spent his time teaching those songs and rhymes to their growing band. Many times, the members of the band would wander through towns near and far singing, whistling, and rhyming, spreading the message as far as they could.

But Alan was just one man, and he was largely a man of peace. Robin needed at least one more lieutenant who could also teach members of his band to fight and make weapons and heal each other and so on.

And just when this need was becoming a worry for Robin, he met “Little John”. We all know, of course, that John was a towering bear of a man, both fierce and gentle. John was also a master of the quarterstaff, and no slouch with a bow. Of course, John was nowhere near Robin’s skill with the bow, but who was? And most of the members of their growing band had no experience at all.

In fact, while Robin’s skill with a bow was legendary, it was his role as visionary and leader that was most important to the cause, not his ability to shoot his bow. After all, it’s far easier to teach someone physical skills with a bow than to teach someone how to develop and share a vision or how to be a leader of people.

And as time went on and as the band grew, Robin saw a change. Alan a Dale had not only made songs and rhymes to spread around the country, but he had also made songs and rhymes just for the band. And as Robin watched, over the weeks and months that the band grew, he saw that these beaten, desperate, hopeless, cold, wet, and hungry people began to have a positive outlook.

Robin was thrilled, of course. He figured that happy fighters would be more effective fighters. And fighters who believed in the cause would be even more effective. But he was still a bit surprised at the change.

In Robin’s mind, here’s all he’d done:

  • Walk through the forest, recruiting people who looked like they could either use the help his band could offer or who could contribute to the cause;
  • Explain his vision and his mission, mostly to his lieutenants;
  • Lead groups of band members on various missions and projects, sometimes to battle, sometimes for things as simple as gathering food; and
  • Spend time with the members of his band, when they had a few minutes to relax.

Robin had done nothing special, in his own mind. He’d really counted on Alan a Dale and Little John to do most of the organizing and such. He stayed focused on the big picture – England!

So how did this group of lost souls start becoming a band of merry men?

What was it about Robin, Alan, and John that changed them and their outlook?

Robin had the vision and defined the mission. And Robin was out there, leading and participating in the activities of the band.

Alan spread the vision and the mission to the band and to the world at large. And Alan was with them, singing and rhyming and fighting and hunting – doing whatever needed to be done.

And John taught them how to do what they needed to do to accomplish their mission. And then he did it with them.

Of course, it’s never quite that simple. Roles are not that clear cut and results rarely that obvious.

But somehow, in the middle of dark times and miserable circumstances, Robin and Alan and John formed the Merry Men!

Leadership is not a solitary exercise, but rather requires the collaboration of those being led.

Continued with \”The Tale of Little John\” >

3 Responses

  1. Josh Holmes says:

    Importantly, Robin had:
    A clear vision that he could simply explain.
    A deep burning desire to help others with that vision that superseded his own needs
    The humility to realize that he wasn’t able to do everything on his own

    Great post!

  2. Twitter Comment

    Great post! RT @athought: Blogged: Building a Band of Merry Men [link to post]

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  3. Twitter Comment

    RT @athought: Blogged: Building a Band of Merry Men [link to post]

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

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