Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion: The Three Dimensions of the Interpersonal World

Cross-posted from

Just as there are three dimensions of the physical world — height, width, and depth — there are also three dimensions of the interpersonal world. And just as we need to learn how to navigate the three dimensions of the physical world with balance and coordination, we need to learn how to navigate the three dimensions of the interpersonal world as well.

So far, I have written two other newsletter articles based on principles from my book, Follow the Yellow Brick Road: How to Change for the Better When Life Gives You Its Worst (www.YellowBrickRoad-book). My first Win-Win article was Follow the Yellow Brick Road: The Royal Road to Managing Change (October 2010 Newsletter), based on book book’s first principle, “We change in Oz not Kansas”; and my second article was Munchkins, Monkeys, Toto, & Glinda: Why Leaders Can’t Lead Alone (December 2010 Newsletter), based on the fifth principle, “Use Your Resources.” Today I want to introduce you to the third principle — the centerpiece of my book — “Integrate Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion.”

Nearly half a century after L. Frank Baum enriched the lives of countless children, and inspired one of the most popular movies of all time, by writing The Wizard of Oz, the German-American psychoanalyst Karen Horney, M.D., enhanced the psychological world with her book, Our Inner Conflicts. This now-classic work introduces the three primary ways people move relationally: We either move toward, move against, or move away from others. Across the ocean — and independent of Dr. Horney — the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, M.D., used three different terms to describe how we emotionally “link” or connect to one other: He said that people connect interpersonally through either love, hate, or knowing.

Although their terms differ, these two psychoanalytic giants independently and essentially identified the three fundamental ways in which we interpersonally move or connect to others: Horney’s moving-toward is the same as Bion’s love; moving-against is the same as hate; and in order to know something, in an unbiased way, you have to move some distance away. I consider these three relational movements the three dimensions of the interpersonal world.

The Three Dimensions of the Interpersonal World

And similar to passage through a three-dimensional geometric “coordinate” system, each of these movements in interpersonal relationships can be either positive or negative, in their impact (as we will shortly see, in an example below).

Over the years, I have relied on this tripartite system to guide me as a therapist, as a teacher, and as an organizational consultant. As I have worked with these concepts, I’ve gradually developed a model that I call the Interpersonal Triangle. The Interpersonal Triangle is strongly confirmed throughout psychological literature as well as in such other fields as systems theory, biology, organizational psychology, philosophy, religion, literature, and even pop culture (in far too many instances to speak of in this article). But what does all this have to do with the Wizard of Oz?

Just as the ideas of Karen Horney and Wilfred Bion followed L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz by roughly 50 years, my epiphany in connecting the three came after another half-century had passed. It was during a chance observation of children watching a video of The Wizard of Oz that it hit me: There they were — all three dimensions of interpersonal movement — and in, of all places, a children’s story!

Early in her journey Dorothy meets three companions: Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion. Each of these companions has some characteristic that is underdeveloped and in need of fulfillment. Each joins Dorothy to find the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who will presumably give them those things they lack. But as it turns out, the Wizard has little to give them that they have not already developed themselves along the Yellow Brick Road.

Let’s look at Baum’s analogy in terms of Bion’s links and Horney’s movements. The Tin Man, who cares about having a heart, represents “love,” or “moving toward.” Lion, who battles for courage, represents “hate,” or “moving-against.” Finally, Scarecrow, preoccupied with having a brain, symbolizes “knowing,” or “moving away.”

So what does this have to do with leadership? I argue that an effective leader is someone who manifests the maturely developed (positive) aspects of each character — all at the same time — with anyone he or she interacts with. Otherwise, if a leader is weak or immature in one or more of these core characteristics, they will inevitably overcompensate with the other “companions”; and whenever we overdo a strength, it becomes a weakness. Let me give you an example based upon my own professional experience.

Mary (not her name) owns her own small firm. Ever since she was a little girl she had a hard time dealing with her inner “Tin Man” — her capacity for loving, moving toward. She believes that all the “touchy-feely stuff” is a display of weakness, and that being vulnerable is utterly dangerous. So she tends to overdo Scarecrow (being distant and cold) and Lion (being impatient and domineering). I was hired to help Mary find out why she was having such a difficult time retaining talent in her company. A quick (anonymous) survey of her employees, along with some personality testing, soon brought the answer clearly into focus.

Based on the feedback that I gave her, she reluctantly agreed to a series of coaching (even though she had always considered the “need” for coaching — a form of moving-toward — as  a sign of weakness). Based on the theory of the Interpersonal Triangle, we did not focus on her overdone Lion behaviors (her impatience and micro-management) nor did we consider her overdone Scarecrow (her cold disposition regarding employees). Instead, we focused on Tin Man. At first we experimented with safe Tin Man behaviors: for example, giving compliments to employees who did a good job. Later we worked on more difficult Tin Man behaviors, like seeking input from her project managers on how to run a project. And finally we worked on how to build an effective, dependable team around her, so she did not have to do everything herself.

Even though I mostly focused on Tin Man, my goal in this coaching assignment was to move her toward full positive functioning in all three of the characteristics. As she began to improve in her Tin Man behaviors, a wonderful thing began to happen. Not only did she begin to exhibit more positive Tin Man behaviors — which was greatly welcomed by her employees (thus making retention much less of an issue) — but she also no longer manifested the overdone, negative Lion and Scarecrow. Instead, Lion transformed into its positive manifestation — effective assertiveness and confident honesty — and Scarecrow expressed itself in a more thoughtful and knowing demeanor.

In this very brief introduction of the Interpersonal Triangle, it is enough to raise awareness of the three ways that we can relationally move, either positively or negatively, and to appreciate that when we are weak in one mode, we will go out-of-balance in the others — making us less effective in how we relate to and impact others. Conversely, when we develop a “synergy” of all three tendencies — moving towards, against, and away — we can move powerfully and effectively through all three dimensions of the interpersonal world.

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