Work is Your New Favorite: Leadership Lessons from Elf, Part 2 of 3

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 three weeks. Last week, we explored the leadership lesson from Santa’s Workshop. If you missed it, check it out here.

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.

Last week: Santa’s Workshop and Ming Ming

This week: The North Pole and the Gimbels Manager

Next week: Greenway Press and Walter Hobbs

This article is about the North Pole in Gimbels. Buddy experiences the worst kind of retail work at the peak of the stressful Christmas season. Buddy’s leader leaves a lot to be desired. Let’s explore, watch what happens, and see how we can lead our teams differently.

Work isn’t supposed to be fun

Gimbels Manager: Why are you smiling like that?

Buddy: I just like to smile! Smiling’s my favorite!

Gimbels Manager: Make work your favorite, okay?

Buddy: Okay.

Gimbels Manager: Work is your new favorite.

There’s something wrong with a work environment when the act of smiling or just looking happy invites a challenge from management. This comes from a paradigm that work is work and fun is fun, but work isn’t fun.

As a leader, you are probably thinking to yourself, “I would never do that.” Yes, this is an extreme example. The absence of bad leadership behavior doesn’t make you a good leader. But these two behaviors will:

  1. Make work fun. Go out of your way to add comic relief to your meetings. Ask yourself the last time you lost control of your staff meeting due to laughter. If it’s been a while, then you can do better.
  2. Be fun. Like Buddy, make smiling your new favorite. Emotional Intelligence is required to “put on a happy face” even when you are stressed. When you do this as a leader, it positively affects your entire team.

Drag your team members into your political paranoia and insecurity

Since Buddy had no place to go, he spent the evening at the North Pole in Gimbels. He used his elf skills to fill the store with elaborate decorations. The next morning, his co-worker, Jovi, remarked to him, “They’re kind of pissed about this.” Then their manager walked into the scene:

Hey, guys. Have you seen the place?

It’s pretty good. It’s a little too good. Corporate must have sent in a professional.

I don’t know why somebody’s gunning for my job, but look, let’s remain team, okay?

’Cause if I go, we all go. If you get wind of anything, call me on my radio, channel three.

Code word is ‘Santa’s got a brand new bag.’

The Gimbels manager didn’t look at Buddy’s decorations as a wonderful surprise that would delight his customers. He took it as a threat. Now, that’s bad enough. But then he dragged his team members into his paranoid delusion, threatening them. He didn’t seem to care much about teamwork until it served the purpose of protecting his authority.

I do, in fact, live in the real world of corporate politics. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t exist. However, there are two key lessons to be learned:

  1. Be self-confident. You are a decent leader. Most people aren’t out to get you. Don’t let your paranoia run wild. Keep it in check. Give people the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intent.
  2. Shield your team from politics. Don’t drag them in. That’s your job as a leader. Deal with the baloney, so your team members can serve your customers uninhibited by corporate drama.

When your team questions your directive, just say it louder

Immediately following the previous scene, Jovi was curling ribbon for the store decorations. Her manager observed her work, and demanded, “Six-inch ribbon curls, honey.” She protested, “That’s impossible.” To which, her manager responded, in a loud and punctuated tone, “SIX INCHES!”

As I mentioned in my previous article, it’s always appropriate for managers to clearly set their expectations with their team members, but nothing else about this interaction is appropriate.

For starters, no manager should address their team member as “honey,” but the disrespect didn’t end there. Jovi protested the request, expressing that it is not an achievable goal. The manager didn’t acknowledge Jovi’s point of view but instead interpreted her protest as insubordination. This manager only knew how to reinforce his authority, repeating the standard, only louder.

Here’s what the manager should have done differently:

  1. Respect Jovi and sincerely listen to her complaint.
  2. Offer to train or demonstrate the procedure for creating six-inch ribbon curls.
  3. Watch Jovi practice and create six-inch ribbon curls with her new knowledge and skills.
  4. Praise her for learning to achieve the standard of excellence.

The manager’s initial reaction took 5 seconds. My proposed reaction may take 5–10 minutes. However, my proposal will actually produce the desired result. The manager’s corrective attempt will produce nothing but ill will.

In conclusion, the Gimbels Manager is an obvious caricature of the worst kind of people leadership. Yet sadly this is what many experience on the daily basis. I doubt anyone reading this article is quite this bad; however, I believe all of us have room to improve our leadership practice. Follow this advice and work really will be your new favorite, for both you and your team.

Stay tuned for next week when we head into the offices of Greenway Press. This next article, I’m especially psyched out of my mind about. It’s just one of those articles where you’re just like, YES! 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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