Five Factors that Make the BEST Stand Out Year After Year.

by  S. Max Brown  |  Leadership Development

Since 1964, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” has stood out as America’s longest-running annual holiday TV special. Why? According to the USA Today’s Robert Bianco, there are five important factors that the best TV specials share in common.

Is it possible that these factors could teach us something about leadership as well?  Here are Bianco’s five factors along with my thoughts on why I think they do:

  1. Music. It has to be memorable, with melodies and harmonies that elevate people. What kind of “music” and “rhythm” do we share with people at work? This is not to suggest that there is never tension or discord – great music requires all of the notes. But what is the overall tone? The cultural vibe is not easily hidden even from customers and clients.
  2. Message. The barrage of fear and duplicity in the news and in toxic work environments will numb us into compliance, but they aren’t sustainable or endearing. Only warmth, humor, and honesty will bring people back to FEELING again. Start by being more transparent.
  3. Magic. Bianco surmises that the best stand out because “the heart wants what it wants, and reason isn’t always part of the equation.” I agree. We have a tendency to wipe out subjectivity and creativity when we rely solely on objectives and rational thought. People want to be inspired. This is bigger than the stock price or latest quarterly report.  We need to give people a compelling future to look forward to – as we dream, imagine, and discover the possibilities together.
  4. Story. The days of learning by lecture are numbered. To engage people, we need to communicate in a meaningful, clear, and simple way. Story invites others to join us in the cause rather than dragging them along. It lowers barriers, and permeates into minds that may otherwise ignore the message entirely. More importantly, it creates space for people to see for themselves how they fit and the role they play in achieving organizational success. Story also demonstrates respect and confidence in others because they are given the opportunity to make their own conclusions on lessons learned.
  5. Timing. Listen. Pause. Breathe. Wisdom: knowing when the best answer is to simply be present without the need to respond.

“A show may not need all, but without four [of the five factors], it shouldn’t expect to be back for next year’s reindeer games,” concludes Bianco.  The best TV specials stand out year after year, but it isn’t by accident.  They were intentional and purposeful in the pursuit of excellence by elevating, communicating, inviting, and engaging the audience to be part of the journey.

What do you think?

What would you add or subtract from this list when it comes to factors that make the best leaders stand out year after year?

Photo credit: graur razvan ionut /

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What People Are Saying

William Powell  |  14 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Brilliant post Max! I would only add one more thing and that is connection. There has to be some form or way of association that has an emotional tie to it. It’s what brings people’s best to the table consistently. Feeling that connection allows them to become part of the story instead of just an audience for the story.

Connection comes quickly on the other side of what you listed as “Magic”. It’s that inspiration that spurs action. Connection comes through an opportunity & invitation to connect. We as leaders must not only provide that opportunity, but encourage and invite others to connect.

Thanks for sharing such great insight, my friend!


S. Max Brown  |  14 Dec 2010  |  Reply


I agree 100%. People typically don’t want to be a spectator on the sidelines. How do we honor them? By acknowledging their valuable contributions that create and invite connections. HBR recently had an article that said (I paraphrase here): “Everyone wants to be part of co-authoring the organization’s goals . . . to share their slice of genius.”

Thank you for taking the time to share today!

With appreciation,


Susan Mazza  |  14 Dec 2010  |  Reply

As I read through how you applied this list to leadership it occurred to me that every one of these elements can be leveraged to do one thing that is essential to leading effectively, especially in difficult times::fuel possibility. Fear, scarcity, resignation, etc. will be the default drivers of our actions unless we have a compelling, believable and very personal possibility to live into for our future.

P.S. Rudolph is a personal favorite this time of year! Your post has me thinking about the lesson of the story itself as it applies to leadership. Perhaps it’s this leaders and leadership takes many forms and that anyone can lead when they are willing to apply the best of who they are to contribute to others.

S. Max Brown  |  14 Dec 2010  |  Reply


I do believe that we are experiencing a special time in organizational & leadership practices. Like you, I feel that fueling possibility is paramount in great organizations. Give people something to BELIEVE in and they will give more than a paycheck’s worth of value.

RE: Rudolph. It is fun to see how many of us have reflected on the story. Of course, the guy had talent, but it was seen as different and unacceptable UNTIL the boss saw the value. Once Santa leveraged his strengths everyone else bought in as well. What if leaders spent more time leveraging the diverse talents within the organization? What if we did a better job of including people rather than trying so hard to put people down? This is obviously work for a different post.

Thanks for your comments Susan! I sure appreciate you.

Yours in the conversation,


Kelly Ketelboeter  |  14 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Hi Max,

Thanks for sharing your amazing insights on Rudolph and Leadership. One thing that I believe has sustained Rudolph’s success is tradition. I know it was an annual tradition in my family to gather round and watch it every year. A tradition that I have carried on.

Creating and keeping traditions is another component of leadership that will allow leaders and organizations to connect with employees. Looking for ways to create those traditions adds value and will ultimately engage employees.


S. Max Brown  |  14 Dec 2010  |  Reply


I love your insight on traditions. My grandfather often says, “The anticipation is more than half of the excitement.” Creating an event that people look forward to can create great energy for an extended time.

What traditions do people look forward to? What makes them so great? Thank you for sharing your own annual family ritual to celebrate the holidays.

I love it!


Tristan Bishop  |  14 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Max, this post is so good I’m nearly speechless (a rarity for me).

When a story has a likable character, with a message that the audience can personally relate to, they are hooked. When the lead overcomes adversity, the audience believes that they TOO have a chance to become all they’re meant to be. When music get’s involved, the senses are stirred and the message lingers longer. As business people and aspiring character-based leaders, there are crucial messages we all hope to convey. I now see that I’m not using all five factors to get them across!

I have half a mind to start singing my blog posts into a videocamera! :)


S. Max Brown  |  14 Dec 2010  |  Reply


I look forward to seeing your singing blog post soon here on the LeadChange site! The article definitely had me thinking about the different ways to connect and create meaning for people. At times, I think we can take it for granted how important it is to consider a holistic approach to leadership.

What if we decided to reach out in new ways to connect & engage people?

The critical factor in my mind is to ensure that the message is not self-centered. People must feel like it is THEIR message and journey too. Otherwise, it will simply be compliance based behavior until they can find another place to get a paycheck…

I’m grateful you weren’t rendered entirely speechless!

Thanks for the feedback,


Tanveer Naseer  |  14 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Hi Max,

I agree with the other commentators that you did a great job drawing unique parallels between Rudolph the Reindeer and leadership. I concur with William about the importance of connection and I think what I’d add to Susan’s comment about tradition is adding another C – consistency. Before we had Youtube, PVRs, or even VCRs, we were pretty much dependent on TV networks to define what we watched and when. Over the years, the playing of this holiday special became something we all came to count on seeing at this time of the year.

Having that consistency, that assuredness that one could count on a specific action or behaviour is a critical key to being an effective leader as it allows those who follow to know they can count on their leadership to stay the course and not veer off in strange and unpredictable directions.

Again, great post, Max. Thanks for sharing.

S. Max Brown  |  14 Dec 2010  |  Reply


Thanks for the note on consistency. I believe the challenge of “Good to Great” and then staying “Great” is no easy task. I appreciate these factors that make TV programs so successful, and there is definitely something about consistency that enables us to look forward, and at the same time, connect us with positive memories of the past as well.

In a world that is increasingly noisy (as you alluded in your point about the time before YouTube, PVRs, and VCRs), it is extraordinary to come out on top over and over again. What if we did incorporate these practices into our leadership practice?

This is a fun conversation. I hope more will participate and offer perspective on this subject of long-term ability to be among the best.

Thank you Tanveer!


Jake Hillman  |  15 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Hey Max,
First of all, let me also echo what so many other have said in that this was a great post… and very timely. I love the first point on music. As a musician (please, don’t hold that against me), my band is always looking to write something new and “catchy”. Not an easy task in a world of Lady GaGa and Justin Bieber. While we try to create something new, we also try to focus on something that will draw people into the song.
I find this can be very similar in leadership. As an emerging leader, I find that I’m faced with the daunting task of creating something new but recognizable. In other words, the overall “tone” must be one that people are drawn to. I appreciate what Kelly shared about tradition. Many of the leaders I work with are very proud of their traditions. I often find that they are usually more open to new suggestions when I take their background, challenges, successes, and culture into consideration. Instead of trying to revamp the song, I try instead to enhance the sound quality. I never really appeciate when someone tries to remake a classic like Rudolf. It’s just not the same and there’s no thought or creativity put into it.
Best, Jake

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