In a Reader’s Digest June 1965 article, President Eisenhower asked, “What is Leadership?” Thinking about how to answer that question, I imagined the women suffragettes of the early 20th century who bravely pushed society for their rights and the rights of others. But while on the Eisenhower Institute Environmental Leadership program’s recent trip to Washington, DC and Annapolis, I met a leader with a seemingly unorthodox leadership strategy: cartooning. This leader of a cartoonist is Jim Toomey, who, for the last thirteen years, has published the daily comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon, which has appeared in 250 newspapers in 30 countries. His comic strip has effectively allowed him to combine his two lifelong passions: drawing and the world’s oceans. Toomey may be best known for his cartoon, but he also engages in advocacy work full time, working to persuade others of the importance of ocean management in the future.
The cartoon features Sherman, a lovable if somewhat dimwitted great white shark, his wife, and a host of other sea creatures, including a turtle and hermit crab. Drawing on life experiences, Toomey is able to create humorous relatable characters from whom ordinary readers not only get a laugh, but can also learn about problems plaguing the ocean, such as the shark fin trade. Toomey claims the drawing is the easy part and the writing is more difficult, but he is still able to use his humor as a leadership tool. Cartoons allow environmentalism to be a little more interesting to the public, hopefully making his educational messages more attractive; Toomey’s cartoons can tactfully persuade readers to think for themselves and then lead them to combat environmental issues.