Just Call Me Scrooge
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Just Call Me Scrooge by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine December 2004

You wouldn’t believe what a friend showed to me the other day!  Believe it or not, a book is now being sold and a a company has been formed to help companies improve their leaders by following the practices of Santa Claus.  In the spirit of “Who Moved My Cheese”, this book contains chapters with catchy titles like “Pick Great Reindeers”, “Share Your Milk and Cookies”, and “Listen to Your Elves” to help illustrate to leaders how they can improve their personal effectiveness in a variety of ways.  While I think that the writers of this book meant to entertain their readers in addition to informing them, I can easily say that I was not amused.

Go ahead – call me a Scrooge – but I’m fed up with the practice of using ‘baby books’ that tend to dance around the true failures that our leaders have and use cute phrases and pictures in an effort to catch the attention of the reader more than give them truly useful ideas for improving the ways in which they develop people, improve systems, and create an environment for excellence.  That, by the way, is my short definition for what a leader is, and you’ll notice that I did not rely on a colorful comparison to a fat guy that only works one day out of the year.  I didn’t even need one full page of text, let alone 100 pages, to get my point across.  Like many of the performance improvement tools being sold on the market today, I think this book has the potential for doing more damage than good.

To begin with, imagine what the majority of your employees would say if they came into your office and saw the Santa book on your desk.  They might not even be able to muster any form of complimentary comments – all of their effort would be focused on not breaking into laughter.  In addition to the instant hit your credibility would take, imagine the types of comments their seeing this book on your desk would lead to in the lunchroom, such as “Guess what the boss is reading now – a book about Santa Claus.  I wonder if I will be getting toys or a bag of coal for Christmas.”  The quick employee might then comment “Well, at least that does make some sense, because all he does is sit around and watch everyone else work any way.”

I have to admit, I can see the performance improvement intent behind the cute phrases. At the same time, I also see the potential for other not so attractive comparisons being made.  In the book, the reindeer are analogous to the managers and supervisors, and the elves represent the front line employees.  Wow, just like Santa, the reindeer also limit their organizational contributions to one day out of the year.  And guess what the reindeers leave for the elves to scoop up in their shovels as they clean up the North Pole on a daily basis!  On top of that, who does all of the work, and who gets all of the credit?

This book is actually built around some of the basic tenets of high performance workplaces – using a sound hiring process, sharing information and profits with employees, and developing good managers and supervisors.  What bothers me is that we have to clad these basic concepts in a holiday wrapper in order to both sell a new book and to possibly reach people who have lost the capacity to read something more substantial or just don’t have the time to read anything that weighs more than a pound.  I’ve read a lot of great leadership books, and this one doesn’t say much that has not been said before.  What’s wrong with the books on leadership that have already been written?  Are they nothing more than dust collectors and bookends?

To make matters worse, in addition to the book itself, the opportunity exists for you to either go to a “Santa’s Leadership Secrets” workshop, or better yet, become a certified trainer in the “Lead Like Santa” process.  I simply can’t imagine what the general employee reaction would be when word got around the plant that Joe the trainer was going to be gone for three days to attend a Santa workshop.  Imagine the challenge Joe would face in training a slightly disgruntled set of managers and supervisors in the leadership traits of Santa Claus when he returned to his real job.  After all, why would someone pursue training of this nature if they did not have some form of leadership problem in their organization already?

Yes, the book does have chapters on making your lists and checking them twice and finding out who’s naughty or nice. These chapters, which talk about good planning practices and dealing with performance problems, do contain most of the key basics for these leadership skill areas, but why do we have to come from the Christmas carol angle in order to get our leaders to remember and pay attention to them?  The book also says that ‘being Santa is not easy’, just like we’ve heard our bosses say.  I’m sorry (and maybe uninformed), but I think Santa has it pretty good.  All he has to do is hang out at the North Pole, eat whatever he wants, and sit in a sleigh whipping the reindeers on the one day that he does have to do go out and work.  That doesn’t sound like the jobs we see our leaders filling in the workplace each day … does it?

I really do think that the people who wrote this book had good intentions.  After all, they wouldn’t have set around the conference room table and dreamed this whole Santa thing up to simply make a buck would they?  Is it possible that the next book on team building will be based on the trials and tribulations of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys?  Will Jack Sprat co-author the next book on lean manufacturing?  The scary thing is that if this book catches on, there are a whole lot of nursery rhymes and fairy tales to base the next generation of business books on.  Does that mean we should be getting ready to go to LaLa land?

Perhaps we are already there.

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