What Can Crayons Teach Us as Leaders?

What Can Crayons Teach Us as Leaders?

I don’t know about you but I love crayons and the possibilities they present. One great children’s book that continues to surprise and delight my three great nephews, The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, has been on the best sellers list for 200+ weeks. It’s a creative take on crayons that makes you laugh and consider different perspectives.

The Story

The book is about a little boy named Duncan who opens his box of crayons only to find they’ve gone on strike. The fun ensues as he reads each letter written to him by his various crayons. These notes include their complaints, issues and requests. A few highlights include:

  • Blue is tired and worked down to a small stub because it’s been Duncan’s favorite color for years. While blue states it’s appreciation for being the favorite and reiterates how much it enjoys coloring the sky, rain clouds, rain and bodies of water, blue asks for a break.
  • The black crayon is tired of being over-used to outline things that include all the other colors and asks, “How about a black beach ball sometime? Is that too much to ask?”
  • Pink expresses frustration with Duncan for not using it because “I’m a girl’s color.” Although pink expresses accolades to Duncan’s sister for her coloring prowess of princesses, he invites to Duncan to use it in new ways like a pink dinosaur, a pink monster or a pink cowboy. Pink even signs the letter, “Your unused friend.”

The book ends with a brightly colored two-page picture drawn by Duncan that earns him an A for coloring and an A+ for creativity. The new picture is covered in drawings that included a black rainbow and beach ball, a pink dinosaur and airplane, a yellow sky and red sun and just a smidgeon of blue water!  It’s fun to ask kids to find all the new ways Duncan used his crayons to create this new picture.

The Link to Management


As you start the new year, take the opportunity to step back and reassess your team. How are you utilizing your people? Are you using the same people for incoming work assignments or plum projects because they are your favorite go-to? As a supervisor, it’s easy to justify why we repeatedly call on our star performers for incoming work, which can include the more difficult and challenging assignments. In my human resources days, we used to ask, “is good performance punishing?’

As we learned from the blue crayon, it can be exhausting to bear the brunt of the work year after year. Do you have a few blue crayons in your midst? At the other extreme, do you have staff members you overlook because of an old belief you have about them? Do you have a pink crayon or two that defines their lane of work narrowly due to fear, boredom, and a lack of motivation or past experience? If so, how might you tap the skills and talent of these other team members in a new way? How can you follow Duncan’s lead and color things in with a black crayon vs. using it solely as an outlining tool?

These questions lead to …


When’s the last time you sat down with each staff member and asked them how they thought things were going, what they needed in order to do their best work and what they wanted to be doing more of, less of, keep doing? As a supervisor, it’s so easy to focus on the day-to-day deadlines, questions and hot button issues while pushing out a myriad of communications.  And it’s critical to step back and invite your employees to share their perspectives.

Now Duncan didn’t do this on his own – the crayons took matters into their own hands. But what he did do was listen to understand things from their perspective and then took new action that honored their individual requests. This produced a stellar result – the highest marks possible from the teacher, with an extra accolade for creativity!

I’m guessing crayon engagement and commitment also went up as Duncan used each crayon in new, more personal and satisfying ways.


We are reminded of the power of using one’s voice. Each crayon asked Duncan for exactly what they wanted and he delivered. When a clear request is met with a clear “yes,” it results in an agreement. Trust is then built when we deliver on those promises.

So what happens when someone uses their voice to complain but does not or will not make a clear request? As a supervisor, this can be frustrating and confusing. Once you’ve acknowledged what you’ve heard, it can help to ask, “Are you complaining because you want to vent or are you complaining because you want something to be different?” You’d be amazed at how often this question stops people in their tracks. It can trigger a shift in their perspective, helping them to step out of the story and emotion that has been triggered.

You can also hone your skills of listening because an unexpressed wish is often the basis for a complaint. So deep within all that venting, what is important to them? What do they really care about?

Like the crayons, your employee may need to vent first before getting clear on the request.  You can help by asking questions such as, “In this situation, what do you want for yourself? With the other person? What are you willing to do about what you want? What request or offer might you make?”