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Leadership Lessons from the Sewer

By Jimmy Lemon, Chief Operations Officer at Bullseye Total Media and 2023-24 Leadership Huntington Class Member

What makes a good leader?


When you hear the word “leader,” what image comes to your mind? The boss who barked out orders at your first job as if you were training for the Navy Seals? Or, that coworker, who somehow rallies everyone even though it’s clear that their big “aha” idea is just a big “uh-oh” waiting to happen? What about a mutant turtle teenager slicing pizzas with a pair of katanas? 

Does that last one sound a bit far-fetched? Bear with me.

People might think of a CEO giving a charismatic presentation or a genius innovator coming up with groundbreaking ideas as leaders. These traditional images often emphasize:

  • Intelligence: The leader who always has the answers, who's read every book, made straight A’s, and can strategize five steps ahead.
  • Charisma: The magnetic persona that can rally a crowd, win over adversaries, and charm their way through challenges.
  • Talent: The individual who is so naturally skilled that success comes easy for them as they outshine others and achieve what many only hope for. 

For those of us who don't fit neatly into these categories, there's a tension. We might think: "If I'm not the smartest, how can I guide others?" "If I don't have a magnetic personality, will anyone actually follow me?" "If I'm not that skilled, how can I be the one who leads?" Imposter syndrome paralyzes us from reaching our potential.

But what if I told you that  the most profound lesson I’ve learned on leadership wasn’t in a Patrick Lencioni book or a viral TED talk, but from a fictional reptile who dwells in the sewers of New  York City?


Leadership Lessons from the TMNT


The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were more than just a childhood obsession for me; they were my first teachers. When my eyes were glued to that small TV sitting in the corner of our living room, I didn’t realize that Leonardo and his brothers were teaching me that leadership isn’t about being the best on the team, it’s about being the best leader for the team.               

Everyone has their favorite Ninja Turtle. Most people pick their based on their favorite color or their own personality. Donatello was the brainiac, Michelangelo the party dude, and Raphael? He had raw, fiery talent.


Leonardo: One SHELL of a leader


Leonardo was always my favorite turtle. Leo wasn’t necessarily the best turtle, but he was the best leader of the turtles. Even though Leo didn’t have all the brains, charm, or skill his brothers had, he was the glue that held the turtle team together. 


Leo leads with dedication over intelligence

In Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare, the hare boasts of his speed and mocks the slow-moving tortoise. However, it's (conveniently) the tortoise's steady dedication that ultimately wins the race.

Much like the tortoise, Leo isn’t necessarily the most intelligent or quick-witted of the ninja turtles, but his unwavering commitment to his brothers and their mission sets him apart.

He understands that leadership isn't always about having the most knowledge or being the fastest thinker; it's about consistency, determination, and heart. While others may rush ahead or become complacent, Leo remains steadfast, proving that dedication often trumps raw intelligence when it comes to leading effectively.


Leo leads with loyalty over charisma


I often watch people who are the life of the party in awe from my corner of the room close to the charcuteri boards. There’s something special about a person that can light up a room with infectious humor or interesting banter.

But, for a leader, charisma might draw people in, but it's loyalty that keeps a team together during the toughest battles.

In 2012, Google studied hundreds of its teams to discover what made some teams effective and others less so. One of the key findings was that the most successful teams had a high degree of "psychological safety," meaning team members felt safe taking risks and were confident that their team would not punish them for mistakes. This feeling of safety and trust is fostered by leaders who are loyal and supportive.


Leo doesn’t need to be the most captivating or charming individual to lead effectively. Sometimes, what a team truly needs is someone who will stand by them, no matter the odds, ensuring that every member feels valued, protected, and integral to the mission. In the end, loyalty creates a bond that charisma alone can't achieve.


Leo leads with consistency over talent


In a world where everyone's chasing the next big thing, Leo's persistent dedication acts as a reminder that sometimes, it's not about the grand gestures but the small, consistent actions that accumulate over time. This isn't to downplay talent; it's just to acknowledge that raw ability without consistent application can be fleeting.

Leonardo's reliable presence, his unwavering commitment to the task at hand, provides a rock on which the team can always rely. And in the unpredictable streets and sewers of New York City, that kind of consistency is invaluable.

Influential thought leader, Jim Rohn, says it this way: "Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying basic fundamentals." 


"A ninja is not how he looks but how he acts." - Master Splinter


A few years ago, my wife Megan wanted to send some extra candy to my son Isaac’s class for their Valentine’s Day party. She asked him if he wanted to get some m&m’s (his favorite candy) to bring. He said no. He wanted to bring gummies. 

Meg: “But you don’t like gummies.”

Isaac: “I don’t, but my friends do. “

Don’t get me wrong. My little dude isn’t perfect. But, hearing that story was one of the most proud moments I have had as a parent. It was a moment where my little guy took a page out of Leonardo’s book and made a decision that was best for the group not just for himself.

Most people think leadership and “being the boss” means fighting to the top to “get their way.” But, that’s not leadership.

True leadership isn’t using your position, power, or authority for your own benefit. It’s about using whatever authority, wisdom, and influence you have to make decisions that are best for everyone you lead.


My daily reminder from Leonardo


I have a hook that hangs by my office door at work. My keys have hung here for a couple of years -  hanging firmly in Leonardo’s grasp. Leo is the first thing I see when I get to work in the morning and the last thing I see when I leave in the evening. Here’s why…well, besides the fact that I’m an eleven year old at heart:

I am lucky enough to work for and alongside two women who are incredible leaders every day. Seeing Leo each morning is my daily reminder to Lead Like Leo as I help them lead our incredibly creative team at Bullseye Total Media. Our team (luckily) doesn’t need me to be the most intelligent, most outgoing, or most talented. Leo reminds me that our team needs me to be me and show up with dedication, loyalty, and consistency.


Our world has no need for more leaders who just want power and authority. We need more leaders like Leonardo — those who don’t worry about being in charge. Instead, they focus on leading the charge and making sure they care for all the people who are in their charge.
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