Friday, December 27, 2013

Five Leadership Lessons from "A Christmas Story"

Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary
Rock Island-Milan School District 41
Milan, Illinois

I suppose like many of you, I spent more than a little time this holiday season watching "A Christmas Story" and once again reliving Ralphie Parker's quest to receive his coveted Red Ryder BB Gun (with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time) for Christmas. It's a great story and one I connect with on many levels. However, somewhere around my tenth viewing of the movie this year, I began viewing it through a new lens and I realized there were some leadership lessons I could learn from young Mr. Parker and his family. Here they are.

1) Know What it is You Want and Set a Plan for Getting It--We've heard it said a hundred different ways--neither action without a plan nor a plan without action are going to get you what you want.  Ralphie may not have been able to articulate that but he certainly showed he understood it. From early in the movie, we see Ralphie working his parents at every turn to get that Red Ryder BB Gun. Think about that scene at the beginning of the movie when he put the Red Ryder advertisement inside his mother's Look magazine. This was the beginning of a complex effort that didn't always work out the way he planned, but in the end (spoiler alert!) his efforts got him what he wanted.

Lesson: Be able to clearly articulate what it is you want and set a plan for making it a reality.

2) Be Agile and Seize Opportunities When They Present Themselves--Not everything went Ralphie's way but when they didn't he was able to quickly think on his feet and adjust his plan. Consider the scene at the kitchen table when Ralphie's mother asked him what he wanted for Christmas. So eager was he for the coveted "blue steel beauty", that he blurted out exactly what he wanted--"A Red Ryder 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. Oooooooohh." Almost immediately he recognized his error and "immediately began to rebuild the dike" saying, "I was just kidding. Even though Flick is getting one. I guess I just want some Tinker Toys." Realizing that his mom "would never buy it", the wheels began turning to come up with yet another plan. Three different plans in 30 seconds. Not bad.

Ralphie and Randy's mom was also an expert in agility.  How many of us would be able to come up with "How do the little piggies eat?" when Randy wouldn't eat his dinner and the "starving people in China" comment didn't do the trick?  As disgusting as the piggy trick might have been, there's no denying that it got the job done.

Lesson: The ability and willingness to be agile and to take a path that might deviate from the original one can be an important attribute in getting us to our end goal, whether it be a BB gun, getting your kid to eat a meal, or getting a group of people to see a new way of doing things.

3) You Don't Have to Go at It Alone----Ralphie encountered so many setbacks in his quest for his Red Ryder.  When Ralphie looked around and appeared to be alone, he searched for allies.  He turned to Miss Shields who offered him a chance to articulate his wish in the theme, "What I Want for Christmas".  When it appeared that he was never going to get his parents to come around to the idea of a BB gun, Ralphie turned to Santa.  He sought out those he thought might be able to help him reach his goal. Now, the allies he enlisted didn't always help him get what he wanted, but Ralphie realized he needed help, and asked for it.  And let's not forget, it was Ralphie's father at the end of the movie who turned out to be his greatest ally.

Lesson: You can accomplish more by enlisting the help of others than you can possibly accomplish alone.  Don't be afraid to ask.

4) Set Aside Time to Reflect--When all seemed lost with his parents, Ralphie decided to turn to Santa for help.  When did he decide to do this?  When he was in bed, it was quiet, and he had time to reflect on what had gone wrong, where he was, and what he needed to do.

Lesson: Find some quiet time during each day to reflect.  It can lead you in directions you might never have considered otherwise.  (Principals, this next bit is just for you.  You may have been sold a bill of goods that you should NEVER shut your door during the day and you should ALWAYS be accessible.  Nonsense.  Time for reflection is an important part of your job.  Shutting your door for 15 minutes out of a ten hour day is not only acceptable, it's essential. Stop feeling unnecessarily guilty about it and get it done.)

5) Stay Positive in Spite of Setbacks (Turn Adversity Into Opportunity)--A classic scene in the movie occurs when the Bumpus's dogs come storming into the kitchen and destroy Christmas dinner.  Ralphie's mom was practically inconsolable.  Ralphie and Randy were in shock.  What did the Old Man say?  After letting his initial anger abate, the Old Man shifted gears and said, "Alright! Everyone upstairs and get dressed.  We are going out to eat."  He led his family and showed them that they weren't going to wallow in self-pity or anger at the Hillbilly Bumpuses and their dogs  No way.  They picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and discovered the delights of "Chinese Turkey" and being serenaded by the wait staff singing "Deck the Halls" and "Jingle Bells".  They would never have created this cherished memory if not for the Bumpuses "mangy hounds" and their assault on the Parker kitchen.

Lesson: Positivity is a choice. You can let setbacks bring you down, or you can look for the opportunities in them to create a different path to your destination.  What do we want for our families at Christmas?  To create memories that our kids will carry with them forever.  The Parkers created a memory and while it was certainly different from the one they intended, I would posit that it was probably better.

I don't intend this to be an exhaustive list of the qualities that effective leaders need to possess, just lessons I was able to glean from "A Christmas Story".  I would be interested in hearing your thoughts and the leadership lessons you may have taken away from the movie.  I would invite you to comment on this post and share your ideas!  And, as always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives to read this.  I genuinely appreciate it!

1 comment:

  1. Great post… There are so many lessons that can be learned from this movie! I can't help but think about how Flick was overly confident that Schwartz and his father were wrong in the flag pole scene. Flick let his pride (and a triple-dog-dare) get to him, and he ended up stuck to the flag pole. I guess the leadership lesson in this case is to be willing to challenge your own thoughts/perceptions - and learn from your mistakes!