An old friend reached out recently. He’s in-house counsel for a startup, he needed local outside counsel, maybe I knew someone. I was happy to help and of course, I do know a good lawyer.

In passing, I mentioned, that I also work with startup founders. I told him how we have this great program. We help founders stop bad behaviors, adopt more impactful behaviors, eliminate talent drain, generate more buy-in from employees, and get better outcomes. He was very polite. And very apathetic. “Interesting,” he said.

My friend’s reaction was familiar. He is not alone. The world wants lawyers. Lawyers are something this world understands. A program that helps people be their best selves and grow into actual leaders is more complicated, it requires thought and questions. It creates cognitive dissonance of sorts. It forces one to look at oneself and confront demons. It is uncomfortable, requires deep work, and for many is better left ignored. It is easier and certainly in the short-term faster to be just another startup with a “we are going to run this like a bull in a China shop, bodies are replaceable, what we need is more funding and time” mentality.

The whole thing is so classic it is an actual bedtime story. Specifically, it reminded me of Loren Long’s children’s book Otis. If you haven’t read Otis, you should it. It is a good one.

Here are the nuts and bolts. Otis is a tractor that is deemed obsolete, replaced by a better, bigger, shinier yellow tractor, and forgotten on the farm. However, when there is a life-threatening crisis that the farmhands can’t help with, the new yellow tractor can’t help with, and the fire department can’t help, it is Otis that comes out with a Putt Puff Puttedy Chuff and saves the day. Otis’s impact is then so public and undeniable that everyone finally sees that Otis is not irrelevant, but critical and that having him around makes the farm run better overall – Otis’s empathy and emotional intelligence, support and leadership, and presence lead to all sorts of improvements and efficiencies that are out of reach for the conventional tools and fancy technology.

It should be noted that although it’s not in the book, I am sure the farm had outside counsel too. And three cheers for the farm because there is nothing like a good lawyer. Nonetheless, here is the reality – all great organizations need great lawyers, but lawyers alone aren’t going to save the farm. 90% of all startups fail and the vast majority had lawyers (and probably people
in marketing, technical recruiting, ideation, sales, and likely a CTO). What I wonder is how many had an Otis with its harder-to-quantify, difficult-to-understand, yet infinitely powerful Putt Puff Puttedy Chuff.