What can a Christmas Movie about an Elf Teach us about Leadership?

Full confession. I once dressed up as Buddy the Elf and delivered candy canes to all my employees. That’s how much I love the movie Elf. I actually have a Buddy the Elf coffee mug that I use at work every year from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

I’m not the only one who loves this movie either. In the 14 years since its release, Elf has become a classic “must watch” holiday movie. Most people can quote at least one line from this hilarious Christmas comedy.

As I watched Elf again this year, I realize there were many powerful leadership messages in the story. Here’s some that I noticed:

Sometimes people just don’t fit in. Buddy the Elf was a human raised by elves. As such, he didn’t really fit into either world. As a leader, there are times when we have great employees who just don’t fit into an assignment or a department. We need to identify these people and put them in roles where they are a better fit.

Employees need to discover things on their own. Buddy the Elf learned his birth father, who he had never met, was on the “naughty list.” He went on a quest to find him to learn more about himself. Often times, employees need to do the same thing. They need to try new activities and be given stretch assignments to learn what they love. As leaders, we need to give people the freedom to discover what their true passions are.

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” George S. Patton

People will always amaze you. When Buddy the Elf decides to decorate the toy department at Gimbels for Santa’s visit, everyone is shocked at his abilities. People will amaze you as well. Give them the chance to show you what they can do. As George Patton said, let them surprise you with their results.

“I just like to smile; smiling’s my favorite.” Buddy the Elf

Just smile. An employee once told me, I was her favorite boss. When I asked why, she explained that I always said, “thank you” and I smiled a lot. As a leader, we set the tone. If we’re upbeat and happy, our employees will sense that. Even when you’re having a rough day, remember to smile.

Don’t pick a snowball fight with someone from the North Pole. Buddy the Elf befriends his half-brother when he shows off his unusual talents in a snowball fight. As a business leader, we need to recognize when to fight and when to back down. Not every fight needs to be won. Pick your battles, whether it’s with employees, co-workers, or even customers. Always remember that discretion is often the better part of valor.

“I’m sorry I ruined your lives and crammed 11 cookies into the VCR.” Buddy the Elf

Sometimes we need to apologize.  When things didn’t initially work out with Buddy’s new-found family, he leaves an apology letter. Apologizing is often the hardest but most important thing we do as leaders. If we make a mistake, admit it and apologize. People know it’s hard to admit when you are wrong or hurt someone which makes a sincere apology even more powerful.

“You stink. You smell like beef and cheese! You don’t smell like Santa.” Buddy the Elf

Employees can spot a fake. Buddy the Elf quickly spotted the fake Santa and our employees will spot fakes as well. If you are not being genuine, authentic, and truthful, your employees will know. They can tell when you are not being real with them. Don’t think you can fake it around your team.

You need people to believe in your vision to bring it to life. Buddy the Elf knew people had to believe in Santa to make the reindeer fly. It’s the same thing with our visions. To bring our plans to life, we need people to understand and believe in them. Do your employees understand your vision? Do they believe in it? If not, it’s never going to get off the ground.

Christmas season is a great time to gather and watch our favorite holiday movies. As you sit through Elf this year, think about the leadership messages. Look for those employees who are not fitting in, find ways to let employees discover things on their own, give your people room to amaze you, find time to smile, choose your battles carefully, apologize, be authentic, and give your people something to believe in. If we do these things, we will be more successful as leaders and, maybe, be as happy as Buddy the Elf himself.

The Joy of Middle Management

So you’ve finally made it to middle management. You’ve arrived at that magical place where you are responsible and accountable for the performance of a team but you still have limited authority and influence in your organization. Welcome to the Danger Zone!

Why is it so dangerous? Because, if you are not careful, this is where careers come to die. At least that’s the conclusion of Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. In a recent Harvard Business Review article called Why Middle Managers Are So Unhappy, they discovered the unhappiest employees are, in fact, middle managers.

They looked at data from 320,000 of the most unengaged and uncommitted employees from a variety of organizations and focused on the bottom 5%. They wanted to understand the driving factors behind the most disgruntled employees. What they found were people who were “stuck in the middle of everything.”

The most common profile for employees in the bottom 5% was:

  • They work as middle managers
  • They earned a college degree, but not a graduate degree
  • They have 5 to 10 years’ tenure
  • They receive a good (as opposed to a superior or a terrible) performance rating

The truth is, it can be tough if you find yourself “stuck” in middle management. It can lead to frustration and disillusionment, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If you have made it to middle management, it’s because someone thinks you have what it takes to lead people and that’s one of the greatest honors bestowed upon any individual. So how do you avoid getting “stuck” in the middle?

Let me suggest five things you can do as a middle manager to avoid becoming an unengaged, uncommitted, unhappy employee:

Contentment. One of the biggest causes for frustration for middle managers is the desire to be promoted to the next job. I’ve seen many managers so focused on trying to get to their next position that they never actually do their current job. Be content. You’ve been asked to lead people, lead them well. Enjoy your time as a middle manager.

Excellence. While you are in middle management, be excellent in everything you do. Instead of focusing on your next job, set your sights on mastering this one. If you can build a reputation for performing at a high level with a smaller organization, you will likely be considered for larger role.

Education. Mastering your job means learning everything you can about being a valuable leader in your company. Use your time as a middle manager to continue to educate yourself. Read business books, take courses that will strengthen your weaknesses, complete an advanced degree, complete an industry certification, join industry groups, volunteer for challenging assignments, or find a mentor in your company to learn from. Most companies offer a variety of ways to continue your education, take advantage of them all. The more you know, the more valuable you will be for your company.

Commitments. Become a trusted performer in your organization. Senior managers are looking for people who get things done. They are looking for leaders who do what they say they are going to do. Build a reputation for meeting your commitments and honoring your promises.

Exploration. Use your time in middle management to figure out where you get the most satisfaction out of your work. Is it executing a large project or landing a significant order? Is it leading a kaizen event or executing a new marketing strategy? Is it becoming a functional expert or focusing more on general management? Expose yourself to as many diverse opportunities as you can to learn what you really enjoy doing. This will help prepare you for what you really want to do in your next assignment.

Middle management doesn’t have to be a place where careers go to die. With the right attitude and focus, your time in middle management can be the best years of your work life. It’s a time where you can master the art of leading people, learn to perform at a high level, continue your education, build a reputation for meeting commitments, and explore what you really enjoy doing. The key is to become a trusted and valuable asset to senior management. Does it mean that doing these things will get you promoted to the next level? Maybe or maybe not. What it will do is give you a lot more satisfaction in your job and keep you away from that bottom 5% of unengaged, uncommitted, unhappy employees.

So, what do think? Is it possible to avoid getting “stuck?” Are there other things that can be done to avoid the middle management trap? How much does your boss or company influence your ability to continue to grow? What options do you have if you find yourself stuck?