Spoiler Alert – There’s a happy ending. Even if you haven’t seen the movie “Elf,” you kind of know that’s how things will turn out. And since the movie stars Will Ferrell, you know you can count on plenty to laugh about along the way to that happy ending.
But during our annual re-watching of the movie this year, what I didn’t count on was getting a lesson in leadership from a six foot three inch tall munchkin. And how could I not pass on these gifts to you?
So for you holiday enjoyment, here are five leadership secrets of Buddy the Elf that we can all keep in mind to make us better leaders in the coming year.
An Unexpected Gift
Like many families, we have our holiday season traditions, from trees, to cards and gifts, to caramel cinnamon sticky buns on Christmas morning. Growing up we even read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol aloud while sitting by the fire place – it doesn’t get much more Norman Rockwell than that.
But a more modern tradition has taken firm hold. Sometime during the Christmas season, as a family, we pop some popcorn, dish out some ice cream, sit down together and watch the movie “Elf.”
Elf is a fun story about a human orphan baby that happens to crawl into Santa’s toy bag during his annual visit to the orphanage. The baby is adopted by the elves and given the name Buddy.
Not Like the Others
Problems arise when it quickly becomes evident that Buddy is not like the other elves. Lacking toy-making skills and feeling out of place in his human-sized frame, he’s a misfit in a land of toys.
Papa Elf finally sits his giant son on his lap and tells him that he was adopted and that his real father is alive and working in New York City. At last Buddy has a focus for his life, and he sets off for the Big Apple to reconnect.
Buddy’s attempts to interpret his new urban environment through the lens of his North Pole Elf upbringing provide plenty of humorous material for the writers to work with. But between the laughs, I couldn’t help but notice that some truths about leadership were coming out.
Here are five of the leadership secrets of Buddy the Elf that I think we can all benefit from.
Follow your passion. Everywhere Buddy goes in New York, his passion is clear. From transforming a department store into a winter wonder land, to decorating an apartment, to sharing his deep knowledge about sugar with his father’s family, it’s all about Christmas.
Sometimes that passion might be a little over the top: I love when he tries to get the angel on the top of the Christmas tree by using an ottoman as a spring board. Predictably, he face-plants into the upper branches, then brings the whole tree crashing down.
Yet his passion and dedication is ultimately infectious, and ignites the holiday spirit in many (though not all) of the people he meets.
When we are passionate about what we do, others can catch the spark and follow our lead.
Set the example. When he befriends the lovely Jovie in a department store and learns that she has a fear of singing in public, Buddy is quick to show the way by personal example. After reciting the elf maxim that “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear,” he launches into an extemporaneous song of his own.
He even adds a little tutoring on the side, prompting Jovie to think of singing as “just like talking, except longer and louder, and you move your voice up and down.”
Buddy not only talks a lot about Christmas cheer, he does his best to personally spread it as much as possible where ever he goes.
By setting a personal example, he encourages others to follow his lead.
Competence Matters. Buddy has a hard time connecting with his father’s other son, Michael. It might have had something to do with the green and yellow elf costume, or his perpetually sugar-fueled clinginess, but Michael really means it when he yells at Buddy to “Go Away!”
That all changes the moment they suddenly find themselves in a snow ball fight in Central Park. When Buddy demonstrates that he has a throwing arm like a Gatling gun, and the accuracy of an NFL quarterback, Michael has a new appreciation for his companion. Soon he is introducing Buddy to everyone as his brother.
When you know what you are doing and can demonstrate that competence, you earn the respect of those around you. People like to be on the winning team.
Keep it positive. Buddy is always the voice of positivity. At one point early in the movie, he tells his father’s secretary, “Deb, you have such a pretty face you should be on a Christmas card” – she smiles and tells Buddy that he has just made her day.
In another short scene, one of my favorites, Buddy sees a neon sign outside a diner advertising their “World’s Best Coffee.” In a fit of excitement, he bursts into the restaurant and congratulates them on their accomplishment. “Great job everybody; it’s great to meet you.”
He may not always be on target, but his unfailingly positive approach to the people around him is infectious.
It’s OK to have a little fun. Buddy manages to find joy everywhere he goes. His child-like perception of the world and his ability to marvel at things we take for granted is fun to watch. Whether he’s spinning in a revolving door, jumping the stripes of a crosswalk, or dancing in the mail room with ex-convicts, he manages to find ways to make whatever he’s doing fun for everyone.
When you can make being on your team fun, you have happier, more engaged teammates, so don’t forget to loosen up a little, and make it OK for people to have a little fun.
Leadership Secrets of Buddy the Elf – The Takeaway
Sure it’s just a movie. And maybe it reveals a little too much to say that I found myself reciting some of the lines from memory, or laughing at many of the gags even though I knew what was going to happen. Everyone knows the Jack-in-the-box is going to jump out and surprise Buddy, but it still makes me laugh every time.
Yet the best humor tends to have an element of truth in it, and Elf does a great job of pointing out some of the quirky truths of human nature.
The big, impersonal city is populated by people after all. Beneath the gruff exteriors lie warm beating hearts. And when you can find a way to connect to those hearts, you can begin to influence them.
Buddy has shown us that if you would lead, you first have to connect.