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Michael Useem
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Michael Useem

Michael Useem is Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The Failed Leader We Love

At first glance, Santa appears to fail as a leader.

His organization is overly centralized. Instead of focusing on overarching strategy and delegating the details to others, Santa makes all the decisions himself. Was little Johnny naughty or nice? Does he deserve the "God of War III" video game he asked for? These are not questions that should entangle a leader, yet Santa handles each and every customer-service request.

Under Santa's leadership, his organization has never developed upper or middle managers. There is one big Kahuna and everyone else is an Elf. Have you ever heard of an Elf being promoted? Further, Santa works his Elves like around the clock for scant compensation. They have never been allowed to organize or even ask for a raise. He provides no health care plan, 401(k) match, or on-site day care.

A leader understands the value of praise. But Santa tales all the credit. You want a present? You have to ask Santa. Ignore the Elves who have done all the work. Yet Santa, demonstrating his limited understanding of employee relations, thinks they are happy in their work.

Despite exploiting labor, Santa's products are so uncompetitive that he must give them away. His business model is clearly broken, but Santa refuses to admit it. Year after year, he persists in compiling huge inventories and then giving them away in the face of market failure.

Santa seems stuck in the 19th century. He has no understanding of modern marketing, advertising or finance. He still uses outmoded and inefficient methods of distribution and transportation. In doing so he befouls the environment as anyone who has witnessed falling reindeer feces can attest.

Grossly overweight and dressed like a cartoon figure, he does not look like a leader.

And yet, we still value and love him.

After centuries in the limelight his reputation remains unblemished. Unlike leaders on Wall Street and in the White House, Santa neither invades countries nor securitizes sub-prime mortgages.

His good humor, joyfulness, and generosity create fierce loyalty among his young adherents. Like all great leaders he inspires belief.

He is genuine and consistent. We know we can rely on him to complete his mission regardless of air traffic and weather delays.

He is kind to small children and animals. Would we want our gifts brought down the chimney by a cranky delivery person?

Santa's simple performance appraisal system (either naughty or nice) is useful in a year marked with ethical breaches. Bernard Madoff and Rod Blagojevich will receive lumps of coal this year. Bernie will try to convince people to invest in his lump; Rod may try to appoint his to a Senate seat.

Santa's leadership remains a beacon of best practices. May we have more of it 2009: A generosity of spirit and a willingness to bring joy to the hearths of virtually all.

Note: This post was co-authored with Steve Clifford, a Seattle-based writer who serves on the board of several for-profit and non-profit organizations and authors a weekly column for Crosscut.com.


By Michael Useem

 |  December 22, 2008; 11:11 AM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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nice article if all this was true and the spiritually misguided have realized thier cruise ship is in fact not even a life raft how much sense would it make to start still another war beteen religions if thes e people go through withy it they will be remembered as possibly worse than hitler which would be hard to imagine but if any administration is actually capeable perhaps ours and israels are pretty patherthetic morally speaking. i guess what we see in gaza so dick cheney and w can stab everybdy with isreals help as they are being kicked out the door. lets see how this works in real life with real people watching who by the way may have noticed the palistian people at the insistance of the usa and israel held democratically verified fair elections and hamas won. i would not have chosen hamas but if we actually want to perpetuate democracry why did cheny and bush and rice try to prop up a puppet government on the west bank and call them incorectly if you go by the elction gvoernment. which rules do they want to play by and it seems to me like they don't care about rules or truth or morals or spirituality or god or peace. they do seem concerned about money and power. perhaps these people are insane. and we should insist they take a time out. it doest take a rocket scientist to figure out what will actually happen in the real world when you starve and humiliater and wall off people and treat them like animals. especially if you have actual rockets and rocket scientist. should it come as any surprise that they would try to do a little amateur rocket science themselves. i dn't condone violence i think there are idiots old tire insamne men and women on both sides and it has always seemed to me to be rather unchristianlike to be a better terrorist and terrorize the terrorist.. when you actually say the words they sound foolish to me but i'm just a stup dyslexi hillbilly artist not a great theologeon or rocket scientest that would be my yonger brother jeff,, but my iq was alway higher that pissed him off in real life. but he has more money than me so i don't know or claim to know if either or both of us are genius's only that i whipped him like a dog in chess when we were both adults

Posted by: artistkvip1 | December 28, 2008 1:00 AM
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What most interests me is Santa's non-patented delivery system that allows him to deliver products (admittedly from a failed business model) to millions and millions of people all over the globe within a twenty four hour period. It is almost as if he had invented a physical version of the Web, allowing the delivery of actual (as opposed to virtual) gifts to millions simultaneously. How Santa manages to do this in houses that do not have a delivery portal (chimney) remains a mystery. Were someone to patent Santa's delivery system they would clean up. Netflix, Amazon, UPS and others could profit hugely from this system if pressure could be brought to bear on Santa to reveal the mechanics.

Posted by: jameswork52 | December 27, 2008 2:16 PM
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