Are You a Santa Claus Leader?

Winter holidays bring “visions of sugar plums” dancing in most heads.  Not real plums, mind you, but modern-day versions—colorfully wrapped presents, mistletoe, eggnog, decorated trees, outdoor lights, carols, and…hopefully the real reason for celebrating this special time of year. For me, it brings visions of influential leaders and what made them so. Few are more famous than Santa Claus.

Full disclosure with a hat tip to Clement Moore, the author of the famous 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” this is not intended to advocate obesity (“chubby and plump”) or smoking (“stump of a pipe”). But, the holiday season and his poem provide a unique metaphor through which to examine the role of the leader.

The obvious connection to Santa is the message of generosity—always an important dimension of great leadership. The holiday day season underscores the significance of compassion, peace and goodwill--all necessary cultural ingredients for a growing organization; especially one that recognizes competitive advantage comes from innovation. But the poem provides us more than the typical festive messages; Santa, like most great leaders, is also fun-loving, passionate, and humble.

Leadership is undergoing a metamorphous in our democratic culture.  As we shift from a brawn-based, manufacturing economy to a brain-based, service economy; and, as the values of Gen Xers and Millennials replace the influence held by baby boomers, there is an opportunity to rethink effective leadership. The new leadership models are not determined by the age of the leader but by the attitude and values she or he brings to the role.  For our exploration through the Santa Claus lens, I have chosen a renowned leader my example: Herb Kelleher, the founder and longtime CEO of Southwest Airlines.

His name is synonymous with fun loving, change-the-rules leadership. A lover of Wild Turkey bourbon, practical jokes, and Harley Davidson motorcycles, Herb is the epitome of a human fun machine. Herb Kelleher, with his partner Rollin King, created the concept of Southwest Airlines on a napkin in a San Antonio diner. He served as CEO from its beginning in 1971 until he retired in 2008.  Fortune Magazine named him the best CEO in America. The airline has had the most consistent positive record for financial performance in the airline industry. The company continually makes the “Best Company to Work For” lists.  Their people-focused culture is in many ways an echo of Herb’s personality.

Clement’s description of Santa Claus included the words, “His eyes, how they twinkled, his dimples how merry!” I spent time with Herb at the 1997 Book Expo in an exhibit hall booth promoting the new book Nuts!, a great book by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg about Southwest Airlines.  Moore’s description of Santa fit Herb to a tee. He was having a blast and inspiring everyone who stopped by the Nuts! booth even those who had no clue who he was. Santa leaders are spirit carriers, exciting all around them to soar like eight tiny reindeers on a winter’s night.

When a South Carolina regional airline, Stevens Airline, filed a copyright infringement case against Southwest Airlines for using their ad slogan, “Plane Smart,” former attorney Herb elected to settle the dispute with an old-fashioned arm wrestling competition. The highly hyped event (“Malice in Dallas”) drew thousands of employees cheering on their respective CEO. The event raised thousands of dollars for charity.  In the end, they agreed to both use the slogan. It was pure “wink in his eye” Kelleher! The punch line: Stevens’ profits quadrupled in three years; Southwest’s stock price more than doubled!

Santa Claus has influenced the world for decades. For many weeks every year, we see his likeness, not just in the helpers ringing bells outside of stores or the ones inside with a child on his knee patiently listening to dreams, but as a symbol of hope, joy, and goodwill to all. He embodies service and a magnanimous dedication to others. As we consider what it means to be a leader, consider St. Nicholas as the embodiment of everything that is good about being in charge.