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On Chemistry Sets and Pogo Sticks

This morning I thought of Henry Mintzberg again.

About six years ago I asked Henry to share the one piece of advice he most loves to share. He said one word, “Connect.”

“Connect” is a guiding light and a leadership challenge.

A question to create connection:

What was your favorite toy when you were a kid?

I asked someone I’ve known for years, “What was your favorite toy when you were a kid?” The answer helped me see her in new ways.

She said, “Pogo Stick.”

I thought her favorite toy would be a doll or something girly. I asked, “What was it about a Pogo Stick?” Her second answer was more surprising than the first.

“It was frivolous fun to jump around the driveway loop with family and the foster children who lived on the farm with us.”

She said, “It was just meaningless fun.” I hadn’t seen her enjoyment of frivolity.

She went on, “It was social. We were together. It wouldn’t be so much fun to use a Pogo Stick alone.”

She said, “It was lighthearted – we laughed. It was competitive. It didn’t hurt that I was good at it.”

A chemistry set:

She asked me, “What was your favorite toy when you were a kid?”

I had several great toys when I was growing up, the James Bond Spy Briefcase, a Lost in Space toy set with a Chariot that ran on a tube track, a record player, a 1/24th scale slot car racing set.

But I said, “I think my favorite toy was my chemistry set.”

She asked, “What was is about the chemistry set?”

Her question gave me an opportunity to reconnect with myself.

“I did whatever experiments I wanted. I didn’t go by the instructions.”

She laughed, “That makes perfect sense.”

She knows I don’t like going by the instructions. One time I created an explosion that knocked me over and shook the house.


Follow-up questions strengthen connection more than first questions.

A second question gives space for reflection and helps people feel understood.

First question: What was your favorite toy when you were a kid?”

Follow-up questions:

  1. What was it about that toy that you enjoyed so much?
  2. What did that toy enable you to do?
  3. Who did that toy allow you to become?

Tip: Don’t analyze people. Let them offer their own explanations. Your job is to honor and celebrate who they are and give them space to reflect.


Think of who you became while using your favorite toy.

  1. How might you be that person with your team?
  2. What does that person most enjoy about leadership/management?
  3. How might you bring more of that person to work?
  4. How might you create opportunities for others to bring their best selves to work?

Tip: If you’re in a rigid environment, get the conversation started by sharing your favorite toy story and what that toy enabled you to do. End your story by saying, “I’d like to bring more xyz to work.”

If I brought Chemistry-Set-Boy to work I’d be trying things, breaking rules, and learning stuff. The reason I don’t bring Chemistry-Set-Boy to work is fear – fear of being judged and fear of failure.

If you led Chemistry-Set-Boy:

You could find fault with rule-breaking and trying things. Or, you could ask,

  1. How might you bring rule-breaking to work in ways that help our team and organization?
  2. How might you try things without being too disruptive?
  3. What would you learn that will also add value to our organization? (This learning is through trying things, not taking a class.)

There’s more energy in helping people express who they are than there is in trying to change them.

Note: I reject the self-centered notion that all we ever need to do is be ourselves. Sometimes people need to change. Sometimes we need to change. Growth is change.

Pogo stick conclusion:

Pogo-stick-girl is the girl I married. We are high school sweethearts. I thought I had her figured out until our breakfast conversation on the deck this morning. 

I more fully appreciate her enjoyment of social connection and frivolous fun. Her serious side blocked my appreciation of her frivolous side.


Leadership is about people. Connecting with others strengthens your leadership.

Try the Toy-Question with friends and family this weekend. Remember, don’t analyze. Listen. Ask some follow ups. Learn and connect.

Take the Toy-Question to work with you. Find ways to energize your team by connecting.

Start your next meeting with the Toy-Question. If the Toy-Question seems uncomfortable to ask, find your own question that strengthens connection.

What prevents leaders from connecting?

How might you create and use your own version of the Toy-Question?

*I relax my 300 word limit on weekends.

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