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Learning Leadership from Santa

Posted 12/13/2013   Updated 12/13/2013 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Gene Kamena
Air War College

12/13/2013 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. - -- Santa's mission is simple: spread good cheer and make people happy. Simple enough, right? Oh, if it were only so. Upon reflection, the problem statement involved with such an endeavor is daunting: multiple time zones, a narrow window of execution, extreme weather conditions, dealing with reindeer and elves (little people), personalized merchandise, and a most finicky clientele (ever-changing demographics of absolute believers, skeptics, form-believers and naysayers.) Failure, however, is not an option.

Only an adroit and seasoned leader of exceptional capacity can deliver the goods (goodies) year after year. What is Santa's secret? Read on!

While participating in a recent Air War College sponsored (before sequestration) Reindeer and Claus Studies (RCS) trip to the North Pole, students from the Air War College experienced a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour Santa's World Headquarters. Santa was busy - he is always busy - but he made time to sit down with our group. After sharing a generous offering of milk and cookies, he offered some insights into his success as a leader.
He did not look like any leader I know, but when he began to speak, I noticed a twinkle in his eye and redness in his cheeks. He was authentic. He was in his element. His message, albeit simple, was direct and to the point. I did my best to capture every word, but my hands were freezing. Sage advice straight from the big guy's mouth:

Santa's six immutable principles of leadership

Be steady and consistent

Santa cannot have a bad day. He maintains a "ho-ho-ho" attitude in all he does. It is infectious. His steady demeanor underpins a healthy work environment for his elves. Santa uniquely balances the need to be jolly with a focused determination to get the job done. His message is consistent: "the right toy, to the right child, in the nick of time, every time." Everyone shares the vision; everyone is on the team.

Lead by example

Santa is a mentor for want-to-be "helpers" all over the world. He works hard to maintain his unfitness; no child wants to sit on a skinny Santa's lap. He never asks his elves to do anything that he has not done himself a thousand times before. Moreover, he walks the walk of a leader by assuming personal risk to deliver those presents to deserving boys and girls. He sets the pace, he sets the example, and he leads from the front.

Reward good performance

Santa knows his reindeer, and he knows who is naughty and nice. He rewards good performance. Results matter. They matter a lot.

At the North Pole, good performance is rewarded. Good performance is the standard.

Have a personal touch

Santa reads every letter written by every child. He chooses the right toy and delivers that toy personally. Santa might delegate authority to get things done, but the responsibility is his alone.

Never quit

Santa never gives up. One year he had to think "out of the box" when confronted with a thick fog that blinded his veteran reindeer team. Santa, in a moment of genius, put Rudolph, an upstart, at the front of his sleigh, making it possible to navigate from the iridescent glow radiating from the young reindeers nose. Santa, in his typical manner, gave all the credit to Rudolph. Enough said.

Check everything twice

Santa is not one to micromanage, yet nothing is left to chance. Imagine a good child being left off Santa's list, or, worse yet, a bad child receiving an undeserved present. Santa leads with a light touch, but he knows how to ask the right questions and when to get involved.

The long flight back to Maxwell allowed time to ruminate over Santa's message. His leadership style is not flashy (except for his red clothes, red sleigh and reindeer team) but grounded in centuries of experience overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Santa is the leader we all strive to become. His principles work; one must only believe.

Merry Christmas.

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