Messed Up Santa Claus Leadership


This is schizo season, when all we want is to enjoy the holidays, but for so many of us the holidays feel like just one more thing we have to do. We have a lot to do: We’re grading papers, or making last minute sales calls, or budgeting, and, and, and. So, my plan is to make “Reading for Leading” light and lively these next few weeks. But still focused.

So, we grew up in a 3 bedroom ranch, about 1100 square feet in Inkster, Michigan (I just checked on the internet and it’s still there, valued at $47,000.) I was one of 7 kids. Christmas rocked at our house. But once in a while Santa messed up. Like bringing Pat, who had asked for Hot Wheels, the Memory Game instead; and bringing Jimmy the Hot Wheels. Of course, we didn’t notice the knowing “ooops” glances my mom and dad exchanged at such moments.

Now as parents and bosses we repeat the same messed up mistake that Santa made 50 years ago. We give folks the wrong gifts.

The best gift any manager or parent can give their “direct reports” is the specific gifts they need to be successful. Some want the Hot Wheels of excitement, a race, a challenge. And others like the cerebral peace of a good game of flipping thick cardboard squares to find the pairs. To put it in more adult and direct terms: some like warm and sincere hugs, and some like cold cash; some like lots of specifics, while others like to be left alone to figure out the how; some need nearly daily deadlines, while others resent being handed deadlines, and some others need AND resent deadlines. Some love social lunches, and some would love the flextime to get home to their kids. Some need the big picture. Some just need to be given the specific assignment.  So, how do you know who wants what . . . without stealing their letters to Santa?*

Observe. Test. And ASK. So often, as parents and bosses we think it’s our job to know what people need, or we just treat them all the same. But forgive the obvious: no two people are alike. And the best way to know what they want and need is to ask them. Ask ’em: if they have enough detail, if they’d like preliminary deadlines, if they want to work alone, and how they like to be recognized when they have done great work.

Maybe sometime in the next few weeks you can ask each of your folks what they need from you in order to be successful and satisfied.

If Santa Claus can ask people what they want, so can you, as you

Lead with your best self!


* There’s actually a lot you can figure out about your team, just as you can with your kids — by paying close attention and using good tools of observation.  The varieties of personalities and gifts that I describe in this paragraph is based transparently on Myers-Briggs preferences.  If you know the tool, you’ll see I’ve described: F’s then T’s, S’s and N’s, P’s and J’s and T’s and F’s (with some combo cases thrown in).

  • Gifts are a great analogy for leadership, probably for anyone who has ever gotten or given a birthday or other gift that was or wasn’t the right fit. For me it intense memories are mostly the unpleasant gifts that I got as a child – so I’ll be using your image for a long time to come!

    Part of what it conjures up for me is the incredible focus of the adults waiting for the kids to open our gifts – and, for me, preparing to show happiness even when I didn’t like the gift because of this sense of the adult anticipation. Surely there’s a leadership lesson there, too!

  • This reminds me of the book, “the 5 love languages”. It’s so important to ask – and to be willing to admit we don’t know – what is important to each person in our life.

  • I remember giving my son a toy book from Wal*Marts and a pen a couple of years ago for him to pick out what he wants Santa to bring him. I’m not sure if there was a toy unmarked in that book. My son was use to having more toys than Toys R Us so I’m not surprised he marked practically everything. Now I can’t see him to even give him the one thing he wanted for more than a year because every store I checked out didn’t sell it other than on line and I don’t like putting my card on line. I finally found it in Toys R Us. What is the point of court orders if they get ignored anyways? Time to start being a Scrooge. Santa never did mess up at Christmas with me as a child. I don’t know about my two sisters. Every gift I got as a child I was happy with especially the little pink bathtub you pump bubbles in as well as my Praying Patty. I use to buy my six nephews and nieces presents for Christmas’ and also birthdays every year and never asked what they wanted. Their parents didn’t buy them anything alot of the times and sometimes their parents returned the gifts we (me and my mom) got them and use the money for crack and other toys the kids will break the first day. Ten years ago when my one nephew (who was living with my mom) has just turned 16 I gave him a card and the look of disappointment on his face when he opened up the card and found “only” $16 dollars in it. What my mom didn’t do for him I did so he looked alittle disappointed. I gave him also a giant card and when he opened it he almost fell over (as well as my mom) because I taped ten $100 dollars bills inside of the card. Money works everytime. Lol. What American teenager wouldn’t want money. Nowadays I decided being a Scrooge is just so much better. Dan, do you think money is okay gifts I know money has no meaning but if they don’t live with you and you want them to be surprise and you don’t know what to give to kids/teens. Wouldn’t kids be happier with money than something else?

  • Dan,
    Love the way you wove E/I,N/S,F/T, P/J into this letter! Merry Meyers-Briggs to you and thanks for highlighting team gifts!

  • “Ask” is the keyword both for the leader as coach and for the person being coached. When the person knows that the leader is ready, willing and able to take the time necessary for a conversation, effective coaching can happen on the dance floor of conversation.

    As my holiday gift to you and your followers on Dec. 10 & 11 at, I am giving away the new ebook “Ask the Coach.” Please note that “Ask the Coach” is a reference book; like a dictionary or any other similar resource book that is not meant to be read cover to cover. Readers would normally look up a question of interest in the Table of Contents and then proceed to read that self-coaching answer in the book.

    The insights in this book are meant to help you develop the leadership skills necessary to become the master of yourself so you will be ready, willing and able to lead others. Self leadership happens through self-learning and self-coaching. More at:

  • Greeting Dan,
    I remember the Inkster ranch and watching you in a little league game in 72! I too can remem-ber receiving gifts that surprised me: a chair for my 18th birthday that 51 years later i’m using as i type this. Some gifts can be really longlasting. A point that should be considered in “leading others”.
    On another point does morality play any part in leadership? You can have something that is technically legal yet is deemed immoral An example is the avoidance of paying taxes in one country by paying them at a far lesser rate in another. Starbucks, Amazon and Google all avoid paying UK corporation Tax of 27% by locating the head office in another European Union country. In 15 years of operating in the UK Starbucks (aka sludgemuck) have never paid any yet they turnedover £359 million last year alone. Amazon & Google both had turnovers in the billions of pounds last year yet Google paid only £6 million Tax last Year’ When grilled by the UK’s Parliamentary Accounts Commitee. the executives were non-plused when the Chairwoman said “We are not accussing you of acting illegally but immorally”..It seems morality plays no part in large corporations legal departments. Bankers paying themselves huge bonuses while causing worldwide financial woe is another example. A true gift this Christmas could be Honesty and morality in Family, Public and Business life.
    The Roman Emperors kept the citizens in Rome happy (i.e. quiet & docile) with free bread and public games. Is there a comparison there with the modern obsession with “reality TV” amd the cult of Celebrity?
    With all this emphasis on What race, etc . it is hard being a parent and trying to instill it’s what a person’s cnaradter is that.s important. As far as I know THERE IS ONLY ONE HUMAN RACE on this planet and all the rest is implementing “A DIVIDE AND RULE POLICY”.
    Leading with your better self isn;t easy when society conspires againt you, is it.” All the best. Phil

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