Leadership Lessons from Elf, Part 1 of 3: What to Do When Your Team Member Feels like a Cotton-headed Ninny-muggins

Elf, 2003

The 2003 film, Elf, starring Will Ferrell and directed by Jon Favreau, is one of the most beloved Christmas films. My family makes a tradition of watching it every year. As with many of my favorite movies, I cannot help but notice the subtle leadership lessons sprinkled about like candy in spaghetti.

Elf is packed with too many leadership lessons for just one Zach on Leadership article, so I will thoroughly cover it over the next three weeks.

You may not realize it, but Buddy had three different work experiences and three different bosses, each of whom had their distinctive leadership style. We will examine each of them and glean the lesson to be learned.

Today: Santa’s Workshop and Ming Ming

Next Week: The North Pole and the Gimbels Manager

The Grand Finale: Greenway Press and Walter Hobbs

This article is about Santa’s Workshop. Buddy is a human in an elf’s world. To say, “he didn’t fit in” would be an understatement. Let’s see how Buddy’s leaders handled this difficult situation.

Training for Skills and Values

Before we learn how to build the latest in extreme graphic chipset processors, let’s recite the ‘Code of the Elves.’ Shall we?

1. Treat every day like Christmas.

2. There’s room for everyone on the Nice list.

3. The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.

Santa’s Workshop had a training program. They didn’t just acquire skilled elves, they built them with a comprehensive training program.

This is a good reminder for all leaders. When we are looking to add to our team, we often hope to find the perfect candidates with all of the right skills. That’s not realistic. Instead, we should invest in a robust training program to develop the skills we need. Don’t place this burden exclusively on the talent acquisition team. Like the elves, we need to do this ourselves.

The elf leaders didn’t just teach skills, they taught values. At CHS, we teach values. Our values are Integrity, Safety, Inclusion, and Cooperative Spirit. These are essential. Sometimes we focus too much on skills and not enough on values. The best leaders emphasize and develop both skills and values.

Performance Management

Ming Ming is Buddy’s direct supervisor. When he first arrived on the scene, he held Buddy accountable for his etch-a-sketch production volume. Buddy produced 85 units, which was “915 off the pace.” Leaders need to have a clear picture of employee performance, and leaders need to communicate clearly when defining the standard of performance.

Ming Ming did this, even though it was uncomfortable. For that, I applaud Ming Ming’s leadership. Many leaders are unwilling to have such frank discussions with their team members. Dealing with reality is necessary.

Employee Meltdown

When Ming Ming confronted Buddy’s low performance, Buddy broke down:

“Why don’t you just say it? I’m the worst toy maker in the world. I’m a cotton-headed ninny-muggins.”

At this point, Ming Ming looked very uncomfortable. I imagine him thinking to himself, “This is the part of leadership that I hate.” He launched into a forced affirmation of Buddy’s “special talents,” namely his ability to change the batteries on the smoke detectors and sing baritone in the elf choir.

Let me be clear: This made Ming Ming feel better, but not Buddy. Ming Ming walked away from the interaction thinking he dodged a bullet, but he blew it.

Instead of the false flattery, Ming Ming should have given Buddy the space to process his emotions, listen, and care. Yes, it’s a good idea to provide affirmations, but make sure they are not superficial. Ming Ming could have used the opportunity to affirm Buddy’s embodiment of the “Code of the Elves,” but he didn’t.

Move the Problem

Poor leaders usually just move a problem instead of addressing it. Rather than do the hard work of figuring out the kind of work for which Buddy is well-suited, Ming Ming just moved him to a department with low performance expectations: Toy Testing.

This act also exposed another form of leadership dysfunction: a weak focus on Quality Assurance. The best teams elevate quality expectations and embed quality engineers onto product teams. Buddy’s QA experience exemplifies a worst-in-class design: Quality is unskilled, disconnected, and without a feedback loop to the product team. Santa’s Workshop can do better.

In summary, Ming Ming did some things right and some things poorly. He built a great training program that developed skills and values. He took performance management and accountability seriously. However, he botched the emotional side of the job, failed to properly address his talent-role mismatch, and poorly designed his quality process.

Just like Ming Ming, we all have our strengths and our opportunities for further leadership development. I hope you can put some of these lessons to work in your leadership practice.

Stay tuned for next week when we head into the North Pole of the Gimbles department store. There will be plenty of leadership lessons there. Just to whet your appetite, we will be talking about six-inch ribbon curls. SIX INCHES! See you then.

Read this article on my blog site or listen to it on my podcast🎙️




Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.

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Zach Hughes

Zach Hughes

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.

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