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The Story of Iron John

In your journey through leadership, have you found your golden hair?

I was teaching at a conference recently. With me were eight men who were all running fairly successful mid-sized companies that were generating at least $10M in revenue.  So they were all accomplished people.

I was teaching them the concept of “who is a rich person?” through my executive coaching services program. The way I taught them was by asking who among them could see the things that really give them happiness and freedom and power.  We spent time being present to the moment, and I kept asking them what they could experience and what their experience was as part of their executive leadership development.

Some of them were so occupied with the voice in their head that they couldn’t be present to the moment at all. They felt myopic. And others were distracted by things they were worried about.  But some really felt the air on their face, the sun, the song of birds, and they felt so much joy.

The lesson was that joy and peace and power come from spiritual things, like love, beauty, honor and sacrifice.  It’s our ability or capacity to access those spiritual things that make us truly rich. And the beauty of this is that the true riches of life are available to everyone, not just to the people who have money. They are equally available to the people who are poor. Whoever has eyes to see and ears to hear, can be infinitely rich.

I strive to relate my teachings with stories, as I have with past blogs focused on leadership. To help them understand, I told the story of Iron John.


Once upon a time there was a kingdom.  That kingdom had a vast forest.  Nobody ever went into that forest because it was so big.  One day, a man set off to explore the forest, and he didn’t come back. The neighbors went to look for him, and they didn’t come back.  The king sent send troops down to find out what was happening, and they didn’t come back.
A few months later, a young man arrived at the kingdom. As young men are, he was full of adventure, fearlessness and had a sense that he was immortal.  He said to the king, “Is there anything to do around here that would interest me?”  And the King said, “Well there is this part of the forest.”  And he explained the problem of people disappearing.
So the young man takes his dog and walks through the forest. They come to a pond, and they’re walking around the edge of the pond, and all of a sudden a big arm comes up out of the water and grabs the dog and pulls him under, and the dog is gone.
And the young man says, “This must be the place.”
So he comes back with his buddies.  They have buckets.  Working diligently, they empty out the pond, one bucket at the time, and that takes a long, long time.  At the bottom of the pond, they find a strange man, covered with red hair from head to toe.  They call him Iron John.
Now, Iron John represents the wildness of masculine energy, and what it means to be your own man.  The story suggests that, for many men, Iron John is just not available. These are men who spend their lives pleasing other people.  They never learn to discover what they want.
So these young men take Iron John and put him in a cage in the King’s courtyard.
Now, the King has a son.  This young prince has a toy, a golden ball.  This golden ball represents all that is innocent and wonderful about youth. One day, the Golden Bowl rolls into Iron John’s cage. The boy wants it back. He says, “Hey, Iron John, gimme my ball.”
Iron John says, “Not unless you open my cage.”
The boy knows he should never do that.  It’s very frightening to let Iron John out into his life and out into the world.  But he really wants the golden ball.  So he says, “But I don’t know how to let you out.”
Iron John says, “The key to the cage is under your mother’s pillow.”
The idea here is that mothers and fathers dream for their children to be good boys and girls, not wild men or women, but solid citizens who grow up to be doctors and lawyers and taxpayers.  Fathers and mothers are afraid to let the wildness into their children’s lives that would make them a great King or great Queen in their own right.
The lesson here is, you have to break your mother’s dreams in order to be your own person, and become a great leader, a great king.
So, the boy waits until the king and queen are gone.  Then he sneaks into his parents’ room, and there under his mother’s pillows is the key.  He steals the key and opens the door of the cage.  Iron John hands him the golden ball, and starts heading out to the forest.
The boy looks around and realizes he’s committed the unforgivable sin.  He’s done something that his parents will never forgive him for.  He knows they’ll never see him the way they have seen him before, and knows he can’t stay.  The ball is useless to him now.
He cried out to Iron John, “Help me!”
Iron John picks him up and sets on his shoulders heads into the forest. Iron John says, “I have riches which are more than you’ll ever know, but you can never go home again.”
This shows that the journey of becoming a great leader, a great king, or a great queen, is to find your own freedom from the expectations of other people, and to give up the power pleasing in order to find what belongs to you. That’s such difficult thing to do because so many of us are dense.   From the time we were young, we’ve been trained to be dense. We were taught to get our significance, our value and our importance from pleasing other people. We ask: “What do they think of me?”  How dense can you be?
The young prince of this story broke free.  He left behind his inheritance and his reputation.  He left behind his family and his security.  But he gained Iron John as his teacher.  Iron John taught the boy about his wildness and freedom and his glory and his power.
So Iron John takes the boy to the pond in the forest.  It is a beautiful crystal clear pond.  Iron John makes a bed of moss and says to the boy, “I have to go away for the day.  Your job is to guard the pond and not let anything fall into the pond.”
Iron John leaves the prince sitting there.  The boy looks in the water and he sees golden fish and golden snakes. As he sits there, he gets weary. He realizes that his finger got pinched in the cage when he opened the door to let Iron John out, and it hurts. And he forgets himself. He puts his finger into the pond, and when he pulls it out, his finger is turned to gold. He tries to rub it They charge to Robin off, but it won’t come all. He’s scared because he’s been a pleaser all his life, and he’s worried what’ll happen if Iron John discovers that he has broken his rule.
Iron John comes back that evening and says, “How did you do?”  And the boy hides his finger behind his back and says, “Fine.” But Iron John knows what has happened. He says, “I forgive you. Just don’t let it happened again.”
The next day, Iron John gives the same instructions and leaves for the day. And the boy gets bored. He’s looking in the water, and leans out over the water, and his hat falls off.  He tries to catch it, but it falls into the water.  It, too, turns to gold.
Again he tries to hide it from Iron John. But Iron John knows what’s happened, and says, “Again, I forgive you, but don’t let it happen again.”
The third day Iron John leaves and gives same instructions. Again the boy is bored with his laborious task.  He leans over, and he sees his reflection for the first time.  He’s so taken with his appearance, he leans further over the pond, and a lock of hair falls over his face into the water.  His hair turns radiant gold.
When he hears Iron John coming, he covers it up with a handkerchief. But it’s hopeless. Iron John knows what’s happened. Iron John tells the boy, “You can’t stay with me any longer. But if you need me, come to the edge of the forest and call my name and I’ll help.
He sets the boy off on a journey down a lonely road, all by himself. He’s lost his fortune. He’s lost his family, his reputations and friends.  He’s lost everything. The former prince has no money. He has no talent. But Iron John gave him what he needed: his Golden Hair.


Some people discover their Golden Hair when they are young.  Some find it when they are old, and some never do. I found my Golden Hair when I was 35. Once I found it, I understood why, as a boy, I was never good at school and couldn’t understand the system I was in. But when I went to graduate school at age 35, I found that I knew the answers to everything.  I understood psychology as if it was my native tongue.  I found my giftedness; that which I would bring to the world. I found my Golden Hair, my genius.

What’s your Golden Hair?  What is the secret to your future greatness?  If you don’t know, would you like help figuring that out? There are several ways or “keys” to help you eliminate places where you are dense, and discover your true genius. It goes beyond executive coaching and more to the place of where you thrive as a leader.

To learn the simple steps to unlocking your genius, I invite you to click here and download a copy of our white paper, “Genius.”

We strive to share with you meaningful leadership stories of those who have turned their leadership style from narrow and dense to vibrant and thriving.  We want to hear from you.

Let us know how it goes!


About Jack Skeen

Jack Skeen
Jack Skeen, founder of Skeen Leadership, has been coaching bright and successful leaders for close to two decades, spending thousands of hours addressing every imaginable leadership, business and life issue with wisdom and professionalism.

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