Five Leadership Lessons From “Elf”

Over the years, we have seen many movies move their way into regular rotation as part of the Christmas Season culture.  Movies like It’s A Wonderful LifeHome AloneMiracle On 34th Street, National Lampoon’s Christmas VacationA Christmas Story, and a whole array of others.  From touching, to funny, even action-packed, they’ve become holiday classics that we look forward to each year.

In 2003, Jon Favreau directed one of those instant classics that was immediately embraced as a yearly Christmas must-see, with the release of Elf.  The story of a human (Will Ferrell), who was raised by elves in the North Pole and eventually left to seek out his real father living in New York.

And for all of its laughs and humor, Elf also has a few leadership lessons that can serve as holiday stocking stuffers…

Let’s take a look at 5 of them;

“Why don’t you just say it, I’m the worst toy maker in the world.  Seems like everyone has the same talents, except for me.”Buddy the Elf

1.  Like Buddy, sometimes we feel like the odd person out on our teams or in our organizations.  Especially when our ideas and talents don’t necessarily match up with the organizational mainstream.  You can begin to feel a bit like an outlier.  Leaders have to be able to not only notice, but strategically put people’s strengths to work.  To find ways for each person in the organization to contribute positively to their team, as individuals.  When we do this, we not only avoid creating an echo chamber of thoughts and ideas, we allow the strengths, talents and diversity of our people and teams to be utilized to their highest benefit.  For this to happen, it requires that a leader not only notice, but differentiate and intentionally engage the variety of strengths and talents around them.

“Buddy the elf, what’s your favorite color?”  –Buddy the Elf

2.  Great leaders don’t spend their time giving people answers, they focus on asking the best  questions.  Questions that drive learning and build capacity across the organization.  As Tom and David Kelley share in their book, Creative Confidence, “One of the best ways to accelerate learning is to ask questions.”   They share in their book, how a veteran IDEO designer, Coe Leta Stafford uses questions as a leader, “One way she brings questions to life is by making them playful.”  “She reframes the question in a way that sidesteps some of the business as usual responses and elicits more meaningful answers.”  So, like Buddy the Elf, if leaders want to build and “accelerate” learning on their teams and within their organization, they need to be able to ask really good questions.

“Sounds like somebody needs to sing a Christmas Carol.”  –Buddy the Elf

3.  Today’s leaders must be equipped with high levels of awareness, at the organizational, team and individual level.  They need to continually keep their finger on the pulse on how well things are going at each of these three levels.  Which requires a strong level of emotional intelligence.  A real strong “notice” barometer.  Today’s leaders need not only have a strong understanding of how to lead initiatives, drive results and create momentum towards change, they need to equip themselves with empathy, compassion, and  understanding.  To have a strong sense of when to push, when to back off, when to slow down, and when people just need a pat on the back and a bit of encouragement.  Just think of the impact Buddy had a person when he greeter her with the following comment, Deb, you have such a pretty face, you should be on a Christmas card!

“I thought maybe we could make ginger bread houses, and eat cookie dough, and go ice skating, and maybe even hold hands.”  -Buddy the Elf

4.  Leaders don’t just know how to work hard, they know how to make work fun.  They find ways to infuse joy into what the organization is doing.  Think of the Google’s, Southwest Airlines, Zappos,  and many other organizations that not only bring joy and fun into their work culture, but they take what they do with incredible seriousness, as well.  They create a vision and a culture that people want to be part of, to belong to one they want to give their best to.  They understand that hard work, doing something that is worth investing themselves in, something bigger than themselves can also be incredibly fun and joyous at the same time.  As Tony Hseih from Zappo’s says, “Businesses often forget about the culture, and ultimately, they suffer for it because you can’t deliver good service from unhappy employees.

“You sit on a throne of lies!  You stink.  You smell like beef and cheese.  You don’t smell like Santa!”  -Buddy the Elf

5.  And even though Buddy was happy go lucky and always tried to find the silver lining in all that he was doing, he did not hesitate to call out a wrong if it existed.  He did not just go with the flow.  As leaders, we too have to look for the best in those we lead, but we can’t choose to look the other way when there is a wrong or problems exist on an organizational, team or individual level.  Being a leader means to not look the other way, to face the issues, which left unattended, will slowly decay and erode the culture of the organization.  Or in the words of Buddy the Elf, “He’s a fake.  He’s a fake.  He’s not Santa Claus!

These are just sample of leadership lessons that can be carried away from “Elf.

What ones would you add?


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