“Watership Down” is one of my favorite books of all time – and I believe there’s a lot of wisdom in it too, assuming you can get past the whole “but they’re rabbits” thing. I even think it’s relevant to the current business setting. Here are some thoughts I had about the main character…
Has there ever been a more unlikely hero than Hazel? Not very big, not unusually intelligent, not even particularly charismatic, he nonetheless leads his friends through “a sea of troubles,” as Shakespeare would say, and sees them safely home. How on earth does he manage it, this unassuming Everyrabbit?
The first thing we see Hazel do is trust. His brother Fiver, a prophet of sorts, is terrified by a vision of nameless horror that threatens to destroy their home. Hazel believes him, and determines to escape with his brother – and anyone else who wants to go. And several do: Bigwig, Blackberry, Dandelion, Silver, Buckthorn, Pipkin, Hawkbit, Speedwell, and Acorn.
Hazel is decisive. Even in the face of uncertainty, he takes a position and sticks to it. He is generous – how much easier it would have been for him to sneak away with just his brother, saving his own skin with no one else to worry about! But he chooses his course, swallows his fear, and sets off into an unknown night.
Their first night’s wandering is surely the worst. Venturing into strange country, no one knows who is in charge. Why should Hazel be the leader, simply because it was he who decided to go? Bigwig and Silver are stronger; Blackberry is smarter. Nothing has been proved to them, no authority has yet been earned.
Early on, the rabbits are forced to cross an unfamiliar stretch of land where any manner of dangers might lurk. Hazel goes first, to make sure it’s safe, and with his quiet courage sows the first seeds of his leadership. The rabbits make it through that first night, but in the morning, a fresh challenge is laid before them – a river that must be crossed.
Hazel’s tenuous leadership is put to the test. His friends are weary in body and spirit, Pipkin appears to be hurt – and Bigwig simply doesn’t like to swim. Challenged by Hazel to test the waters, Bigwig reluctantly crosses the river, only to return moments later with news that means they must all swim immediately or risk being killed. But Hazel will not leave the injured Pipkin.
Enter Blackberry, with the clever idea of floating Pipkin across the river on a loose board. Hazel doesn’t entirely understand Blackberry’s idea, but he agrees on faith and orders them all into the water. The crossing made, he searches for a safer place while the others finally sleep.
What a manager Hazel would make! Who hasn’t worked, at one time or another, for someone who is threatened by the talents of a subordinate, who looks to increase his or her own importance by diminishing a colleague? Not Hazel. He seeks the greater good – a better life for those who have chosen to follow him – and is grateful to have so intelligent a comrade as Blackberry. When morale is low, he does not try to inspire his friends with grand speeches, but turns to Dandelion – who has a way with a story – to hearten them with tales of the great rabbit hero El-ahrairah.
Hazel recognizes, and appreciates, the strengths of his compatriots. He knows that he belongs to them, as they belong to him, and he values that belonging.
Hazel isn’t perfect, though. His greatest faults, shared by many a suddenly-elevated leader, are pride and overconfidence. When misplaced certainty almost costs Bigwig his life, Hazel loses no time in rallying the rabbits to save their wounded friend. He admits his mistake, learns from it, and guides the group to the high hills where Fiver assures him they’ll be safe.
Hazel may be effective in a crisis, but he displays his leadership most strongly in his ability to see the big picture. It is Hazel who realizes that the new warren will die out unless they can find female rabbits to join them; Hazel who suggests that they befriend an injured but threatening bird and use him as a scout; Hazel who organizes the expedition to free the imprisoned females of a faraway warren and secure the future of the rabbits of Watership Down. He marshals the unique talents of each of his followers to achieve the result they all need.
He asks for help.
He leads by example.
Above all else, Hazel never gives up; his love for his friends won’t let him. Diplomat, strategist, CEO, general – he manages to be all of these things simply because he cares so much. Witness our greatest leaders: Abraham Lincoln fighting to hold a nation together; Harriet Tubman guiding slaves to freedom in the face of overwhelming danger; Winston Churchill battling the ultimate evil of Hitler.
Their dedication transformed these once-ordinary people into history’s heroes.
When you think about it, they’re a lot like Hazel.