4 leadership lessons you can learn from Santa

Jonathan Yabut
Think of Santa Claus as the CEO of North Pole, who has consistently met his key performance indicators because of his effective leadership skills

There is no other more iconic symbol for Christmas (apart from the birthday celebrant of course) than Santa Claus. If you were nice this 2014, you must be expecting the jolly old man to visit your home this Christmas Eve for a treat. But have you ever wondered how a single person can manage a toy workshop full of elves, identify the nice from naughty kids, and deliver millions of presents on time?

Think of Santa Claus as the CEO of North Pole, who has consistently met his KPIs or key performance indicators because of his effective leadership skills. Truly, our dear Santa Claus never fails to deliver (pun intended).

Whether you’re a budding entrepreneur set to become the next Steve Jobs or a middle manager gearing up to be the next president of your company, I’ve dissected the leadership skills of the white-bearded man who can teach us a couple of lessons for running the world’s largest (and probably oldest) toy factory in the world:

Great leaders exceptionally spot people’s strengths and focus on improving these to the point that they can overwhelm the weaknesses.  

1. Set clear goals for your “elves.” To deliver presents to millions of children around the world, Santa relies on his elves. They sweat it out at the factory in a classic assembly line fashion where each specializes on a role. Someone manufactures the toys, another one wraps them, and finally someone identifies the shipping address. 

Santa knows that to keep this giant factory working, he needs to organize his elves based on quantifiable and clear metrics that will guide every worker and set him up for success. Just like Santa, great leaders know that the foundations of an effective workforce are grounded on a clear understanding of what needs to be delivered.

To be inspired and motivated, workers always ask the question, “What is the objective of this task?” or “Where is this headed?” and “Am I doing my job right?” Great leaders don’t just give commands and expect people to follow them blindly. They make sure they answer these questions immediately on Day 1.

2. Always go back to your “north.” A leader like Santa Claus is surely tempted to do “something else” every year (imagine all the ideas he probably must have thought of while floating up there on his sleigh).

But after all hard work of delivering Christmas presents to the kids he knows that everything in the end must go back to the “north” – to start making a new list, make new toys, and deliver them again for next year.

We live in a time called the Age of Distraction in which technology and social media have gotten the best of our attention span. Today, companies easily get distracted with wanting to do every single idea that come their way – what if we change the packaging of our product? What if we launch another service? What if we overhaul the organization?


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Innovation is always good, but not every change is necessary for the sake of changing. Some changes can pull you away from the very goal that you wanted from the very start. Great leaders always go back to the organization’s “True North” which refers to the desired future state of the company.

They always question every move: “Is this really want we want in the end?” “Are we steering the company in the right direction?” “Are we future-proofing the company’s assets?” “Are we ready for the competitor’s next move?”

Great leaders know that distractions and disruptions will always come their way, but they always commit to a vision, and successfully nail it down.

3. Know and tap the strengths of your “reindeer.” The ever popular song “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” sums it all up with Santa’s reindeers laughing at Rudolph and calling him names for his glowing red nose. Rudolph was the company outcast. But Santa spotted that this “weakness” can be turned into a strength one foggy Christmas eve while delivering presents to the kids.

Rudolph’s nose finally came to good use. Santa, who never gave up on Rudolph, finally tapped him to shine, “Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

While leaders ideally handpick their direct reports, not everyone will be fortunate to choose the people who will work for them. Some people assigned to you will be good, and some will take a lot of your patience to deliver. Mediocre leaders easily give up on employees that have yet to shine, but great leaders bring out the best from their people despite their weaknesses, and despite their shortcomings.

Great leaders exceptionally spot people’s strengths and focus on improving these to the point that they can overwhelm the weaknesses. Great leaders take time to develop them because they know that it’s part of their job. They are those who can polish any rough stone and turn it into a diamond.

4. Find out who’s naughty and who’s nice – and let them know it. We all know that Santa makes a list of children who have been naughty and nice (and yes, he does check this list twice). The nice ones get presents, and the bad ones don’t get any at all (in some countries, Santa apparently brings them a home a sack of coal).

Santa’s system is not only meant to reward, but to clearly signal and give feedback to children if they have been bad or good. In many surveys and studies worldwide, “feedback” is considered as the most crucial element that both leaders and employees find lacking in every company.

Great leaders provide constant feedback – whether formal or casual – because the last thing that any worker wants is to be clueless of how he’s performing (or worse, have the impression that he’s doing well when he’s falling short of everyone’s expectations). Great leaders are never insecure to praise and reward people whenever they shine. Great leaders don’t just ignore the rotten apples (trust me, silent treatment doesn’t work for everyone and at times even sends the wrong signal that the bad acts are just “fine”).

They tell immediately when the lines have been crossed, make the worker appreciate the impact of the action, and ask for a commitment to not do it again. 

Looking forward

When it comes to success in the corporate world, no one is too old for dear Santa who can prove what it takes to inspire and motivate people to succeed.

May you all have a meaningful holiday season and may you bring leadership to even greater heights for the coming year! – Rappler.com

Jonathan Yabut is the winner of the hit reality business TV show, The Apprentice Asia, and was popularly known in the show for his people skills, leadership and passionate speeches in the “boardroom.” He is currently based in Kuala Lumpur as the Chief of Staff of AirAsia reporting to Malaysian business mogul, Tony Fernandes. Apart from work, he engages in motivational talks about youth, leadership and entrepreneurship across Southeast Asia and is represented by the London Speaker Bureau. He recently launched his book about his journey to becoming the first Asian Apprentice, From Grit to Great. Visit his website at jonathanyabut.com