When I was training the Marines of the Auburn University Naval ROTC Unit, I had a sign on my desk that summarized my approach to leadership.  It said, “Forge the Jell-O.”  I suspect I’m the only Marine to ever include such a gelatinous substance in my leadership philosophy.

Imagine yourself as a skilled Jell-O chef:  You mix up the ingredients (water, gelatin, flavoring), pour the mixture into a mold, and refrigerate it overnight until it firms up.  When you think the Jell-O is firm enough, you take the mold and turn it upside down on a plate, shaking out the Jell-O to loosen it from the mold.  Then, the Jell-O will stand firm on its own, in the shape of the mold.  Congratulations.

The leadership metaphor:  The leader is the cook.  The Jell-O is the individual being trained/led.  The mold is external motivation for the led to take the form that the leader envisions.  The gelatin is self-discipline and integrity—the internal motivation to take that new form.

But leaders often make one of two mistakes:

1.  Some leaders don’t realize that they have the opportunity to shape others.  They may occasionally add in some helpful ingredients to those around them, but without a deliberate vision of who the led can become (and external motivation to get there), it becomes a messy and haphazard affair.  Imagine pouring Jell-O into the refrigerator without a mold to shape it.

2.  Other leaders have a good sense of what shape they want those they lead to take, but they don’t provide others a way to stand on their own.  Without the integrity and self-discipline that drives individuals from within, we end up with individuals who can perform at high levels only when the mold is tightly clamped down.  When the mold is lifted, they ooze back into a shapeless mess.

Transformative leadership requires that we clearly envision who others can become, that we provide external support for others to achieve that form, and that we create an environment where self-discipline and integrity flourish.

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  1. Great stuff, Chip. I recall the sign, and I was that jello! I would like to recommend a book to you that I think you and your readers would enjoy. You can find it here: http://www.howtomeasureanything.com. My job entails measuring things that are generally hard to measure, and I found this book fascinating and very useful. I think it is also applicable across a wide range of professions. Another fantastic read (and a bit more on-topic) that might be useful to you is “Influencer: The power to change anything”… look forward to reading more from you!

  2. Great reminder about the important role of leadership. I’ll never look at Jell-O the same way again.

  3. Powerful analogy of active leadership as combining resources and expectations to drive certain outcomes. I think your title of “forget the jello” also might signify that Jello has no will of its own; to say perhaps that active leadership needs to identify into whom this investment of resources and expectations should go.
    In other words, you can put the perfect ingredients into Jello and mold it perfectly but it still isn’t going to support any weight.
    Your blog is great!

  4. Becky Washington

    Hmm..Jell-O forging! What an interesting anology! What’s more interesting is that the jell-o ingridients have to be right in order for even the moulding to take place, therefore the leader has to plant the ingriedients before the moulding can successfully take place – big challenge! but not impossible.

  5. Chip,
    A masterpiece, often comapanies have great first line leadership, but the downline leadership talent pool is like a public pool after Labor Day….Full of water but not being utilize and in need of a good cleaning. Before the temps drop the pool is drained and all that is left behind is the residue. The same happens to companies that invest very little in leadeship development.

    Jello-o……Great Analogy.

  6. In my experience, I’ve seen leaders make an additional, glaring failure when attempting to mold their Jell-O. The failure: before mixing the ingredients, they use their interpretation and definition of the ingredients without taking into consideration what the employee sees as relevant to the ingredient. Sure, when we literarily make Jell-O, sugar is sugar. Yet, when we lead people, the definition of a specific leadership skill to one employee is not always the same to another. For example, one employee may find motivation as the opportunity to work overtime and earn extra pay, while another may find it in the opportunity to have more responsibility. Thus, the leader must not only identify which ingredients go into the recipe, but also define each ingredient in its application. Employees should not simply be molded into what the leader envisions as the idealistic mold; rather, they should be molded into a Jell-O form that best suits the individual employee. In doing so, the employee will reach his highest levels of proficiency, efficiency, success, and the like.

    Therefore, in my humble opinion, the leader who attempts to replicate the same Jell-O mold with each employee is lazy and does so in an attempt to reach some personal level of comfort. Leadership is uncomfortable, tiring, and strenuous, and it is by far one of the hardest skills to develop. However, in the leadership classes I’ve had thus far, the Jell-O mold has been an excellent tool in my leadership bag of tricks and tips. USE IT WISELY!!! Thanks, Chip.

  7. Nice!

    That is a great metaphor with a clear explanation!

    Thanks Chip!

  8. Ha ha! When I first saw the subject of your email, I thought it said, “Forget the Jell-O”. Whhhhaaaattt??? Were you advising your friends to lay off the snacks and focus on their leadership tasks?
    Awesome post.