The Unexpected Leadership Lessons of Elf

It’s officially Christmas season and full confession – at one business I led, I used to dress up as Buddy the Elf (yellow tights and all) to deliver candy to all my employees during the Holidays.

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. In fact, I’m drinking from it right now!

I’m not the only one who loves this movie either. In the 18 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 how many powerful leadership messages are contained in the story.

Here are some things 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. Oftentimes, 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.

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.

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. Leaders 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.

Sometimes we need to apologize.  When things didn’t initially work out with Buddy’s newfound 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.

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.

The Christmas season is a great time to gather with families and watch our favorite Holiday movies.

As you sit through Elf this year, think about these 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.

Give the gift of leadership this Christmas by giving the leaders and future leaders a copy of one of my books.

From now until Christmas, all my leadership books are on sale at jonsrennie.com! Use the coupon code ‘elf20’ at checkout to get 20% off and free domestic shipping!

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The Crushing Weight of Bureaucracy

When I started my corporate career, I worked for a global company led by the hard-charging CEO, Percy Barnevik.

He believed in pushing decision-making to the lowest level. His corporate mantra was, “think global, act local.” He empowered his local managers to take charge and make things happen.

As a young general manager of a manufacturing business in that company, I was thankful to be working for a CEO who understood the power of delegating authority. I had the autonomy to run my business as I saw fit so long as I got results.

I was not burdened with extraneous paperwork or monthly reporting. Instead, Barnevik kept his headquarters small and focused his senior management team on ensuring local managers had everything they needed to succeed.

As a result, we were free to do what was needed locally to get the best results – and the results were outstanding. We moved fast and, every year, we grew sales and profits.

We also had a lot of fun doing it.

In many ways, I felt like I was running my own business – except I had a large corporation backing me up. It was the most fun I ever had working as a leader in a global company.

Unfortunately, good things never last.

Barnevik eventually retired, and his replacements believed that the company had too many maverick business leaders around the world.

They felt the company needed to have a more uniform approach, so they hired more and more people on staff to coordinate this standardization. Eventually, what was once a small team at headquarters focused on supporting local businesses, became an army of bureaucrats working to control every aspect of the company.

Over the years, the company eventually stripped most of the authority from local business managers. Instead, most decisions went through the bureaucrats.

As a result of the weight of this bureaucracy, decision-making slowed down, and our growth stalled as well.

Under the weight of bureaucracy, decision-making slows down, and growth stalls as well. Click To Tweet

Faceless bureaucrats without any responsibility for the financial performance of local businesses were now in charge. They had all the authority and no accountability. The company still held local managers responsible for the financial results, but they had little power to implement the ideas to make it happen.

What was once fun became a futile battle of rules and red tape.

Frustrated, I eventually moved to another global business only to discover that the situation was even worse. There, local managers had no authority.

Frustration and apathy sat like a dark cloud over employees. Most local managers had given up trying to make things better. The faceless bureaucrats were in charge, and local managers could do nothing to change the situation. Most managers felt like they were strapped into a car with no steering wheel – they had no control.

It was the most depressing place I had ever worked.

That experience caused me to leave corporate life to start my own business.

As an entrepreneur, I once again attained the right balance of authority and responsibility. I had complete control of my business, made quick decisions, and my sales multiplied.

I also learned to have fun again.

How does this relate to your leadership journey?

It should be a reminder of your role as a leader. It’s not your job to create a bureaucracy to control every aspect of your employees’ lives. Your job is to empower your people to take action to accomplish the goals of the company.

A leader's job is to empower people to take action to accomplish the goals of the company. Click To Tweet

People enjoy freedom, and they will thrive when not faced with the crushing weight of bureaucratic processes.

Our job as leaders is to communicate the goal, establish the ground rules, and ensure our people have everything they need to succeed.

When you remove the weight of bureaucracy, your team will move faster, resulting in quicker results.

When faced with the decision to add layers of red tape, ask yourself, what would Percy do?

In my bestselling leadership book, All in the Same Boat, I tell more stories of what it was like working for a leader like Percy Barnevik.

[Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash]

Building an Unstoppable Team

Last week, I went out to the factory floor to see how we were doing building a critical order for a new customer. From a distance, I didn’t recognize the person packing the units at the end of the line. When I realized who it was, I had to laugh. It was our head of sales. He had jumped in to help get the order out in 24 hours as we had promised. I laughed because I knew there was no way our competition could ever match this level of commitment.

Have you ever noticed that there are some teams who just know how to win? Companies that outpace their rivals, sports teams that dominate their competition or military units that seem to do the impossible. There is something special about these teams that make them unstoppable.

As leaders, our job is to build and lead our teams. Leading teams is one thing but how do you build a team? How do you form a group of employees that will be resilient, persistent and consistently effective? What makes a team unstoppable?

Let me suggest that there are 4 important things to consider when building a high performing team.

Select individuals who have complementary skill sets. This is especially important for small teams. Everyone should have a specific expertise that is required to accomplish the team’s objective. Take, for example, Navy Seals. In each team, there are specialists like medics, snipers, breachers, jumpmasters, dive masters or language experts. Even though there are some overlapping skills, the experts are relied on by the team for success in specific areas of the mission. Look at the team you are assembling. Do they have complementary skill sets? Do they have the combined skills to complete the objective?

Select individuals who have achieved a high level of competency. As a former Naval Officer who served on nuclear submarines, I appreciate the brilliance of the Navy’s qualification program. To be promoted or to assume certain duties, you had to go through a rigorous qualification process. This meant everyone you served with had achieved a high level of competency. This established mutual respect across the team and built a high level of trust. You knew your teammate had the skills to watch your back. To build a great team, you should carefully consider the competency of each team member.

Select individuals who have proved themselves under adversity. As I wrote in the article, The One Trait your CEO Wants You to Have, persistent people are extremely valuable to the success of any team. Look for those special employees who can step up and deliver results regardless of the adverse circumstances. Look for people who don’t quit and have a proven history of perseverance. Look for the engineer who worked two jobs and went to night school for six years to graduate, the veteran who served two combat tours or the plant manager who worked their way up from the shop floor. These are the people who are going to make a difference when things get tough.

Select individuals who are unselfish and have a “mission first” mindset. The success of unstoppable teams resides in the singular focus on the mission. “Mission first” employees understand the objective takes priority over individual goals or career aspirations. Like our sales manager jumping in to help manufacturing, these employees will do whatever it takes to complete the mission. This mindset creates a culture where individuals hold each other mutually accountable to the team’s goal. There’s little room for office politics and egos when the priority is winning.

The objective of leadership is to direct a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.  The most important part of that objective is choosing the right people who will make up the team. Selecting employees with the right characteristics, experience and mindset can make the job of winning easier. Unstoppable teams are uncommon because building a great team isn’t easy. You need to find the right people with complementary skills sets who have achieved a high level of competency. Look for individuals who have proven themselves under adversity and can adopt a “mission first” mindset. Putting these people together and leading them well is the key to lasting success.