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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Hope is More Powerful than Strategy

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “hope is not a strategy.”

While I generally agree with that statement, I would argue that hope is essential for leadership. And at times, even more powerful than strategy itself.

Hope is essential for leadership. Click To Tweet

The great Napoleon Bonaparte once said that “a leader is a dealer in hope.”

A dealer in hope? Yes, that’s a strange description. In my mind, I see a leader dealing out hope like playing cards to worried employees.

In a way, that’s exactly what a leader must do.

Consider Winston Churchill. In the dark days of the beginning of World War II, the British people were filled with despair. They had suffered heavy losses, and there was fear throughout the country that Germany would be successful in overcoming the small Island nation.

In a speech delivered on June 4, 1940, Churchill provided hope to a worried nation. He assured them that:

“We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets, and on the hills. We shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for the moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, will carry on the struggle until in God’s good time the New World with all its power and might, sets forth to the liberation and rescue of the Old.”

In one speech, Winston Churchill ignited a country. He drove out despair and gave his people a hopeful vision of the future.

It’s our job as leaders to do the same.

In the past two years, every business has faced unprecedented challenges. A global pandemic, a deeply divided nation, labor shortages, inflation, and the supply chain crisis have all pushed employees to new levels of stress and anxiety.

People are worried about their jobs, their families, and their future. They are looking to their leaders for answers.

Just like Churchill, our role as leaders is to drive out despair and provide hope.

Our role as leaders is to drive out despair and provide hope. Click To Tweet

You might be asking yourself – how can I drive out despair when I don’t know what will happen in the future? How can I provide hope when I’m having trouble finding it myself?

Simple. We need to take a page out of Churchill’s playbook.

Instead of griping, complaining, and worrying in front of our employees, we must provide a hopeful vision of the future.

The only way to drive out despair is to unite our employees around a hopeful vision.

When the seas turn violent, and a storm blows in, sailors look to their captain for hope and assurance.

There will be time for strategy, but right now, our people need hope more than ever.

Providing a hopeful vision is one of the most important roles of a leader, learn more about establishing a hopeful vision in my new book All in the Same Boat.

[Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash]

The Problem with Mandates

There have been more than 15,000 books written on the subject of leadership but, when you boil it down, leadership is about inspiring people to get things done.

Leadership author and speaker Kevin Kruse says that “leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.”

As Kruse points out, there are three basic elements to leadership – influence, people, and a goal.

Great leaders know this.

Throughout history, their words have inspired movements.

Think about Martin Luther King, Jr. On August 28, 1963, in front of a gathered crowd of more than 200,000 people, he inspired a nation by his words.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

His words and actions motivated millions of people to act which ultimately led to The Civil Rights Act of 1964.  King understood the power of influence. He knew that to inspire people to action, he needed to paint a picture of the future.

A future where his “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

He knew that when people understand the “why” behind a movement, they would be motivated to act.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French writer, poet, and pioneering aviator, said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Great leaders inspire actionthey don’t force it.

Great leaders inspire action - they don’t force it. Click To Tweet

Many managers, on the other hand, rely on micromanagement to try and get things done. Instead of creating a vision, they “drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks.”

And if people don’t comply, these bosses rely on threats, intimidation, and mandates to try and force people to act.

The problem with mandates is that they don’t work – they don’t inspire action.

They are the last resort for a manager who has failed to make a compelling case.

The problem with mandates is that they don’t work - they don’t inspire action. They are the last resort for a manager who has failed to make a compelling case. Click To Tweet

It’s like a frustrated parent who says, “I’m your father that’s why” or “If you don’t eat your dinner, you can’t go out and play.”

Instead of compliance, mandates create defiance.

When a boss fails to establish a vision of the future or properly explain the “why” behind their new rules, people are not moved to action. Most will push back.

It’s human nature not to follow someone if you don’t where they are headed.

It’s human nature not to follow someone if you don’t where they are headed. Click To Tweet

This week has been filled with news of mandates and consequences for non-compliance. I’m not an expert in politics or infectious diseases, but I know people. I know they don’t like being told what to do especially when they don’t see a clear vision of the future.

Will there be some compliance with these mandates? Sure. But I think there will be a lot more defiance.

This is not a political post, this is about leadership and you need to consider it as it relates to your own leadership story.

Are you inspiring people to action? Or, are you mandating compliance?

If you want to create a movement, you need to inspire people with a vision of the future that they all want to be in.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was probably the greatest example of a leader who embraced this idea. We could all learn a lot from his example.

If you are interested in learning more about how to inspire a workforce, check out my new book, All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner. 

[Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images]