The Leader as Santa

Chip R. Bell, Keynote Speaker & Author, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experience Through Innovative Service

The Leader as Santa

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 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 good will--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 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 two renowned leaders as examples:  Herb Kelleher, the founder and long time CEO of Southwest Airlines and Cheryl Batchelder, the CEO of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen.  Each brings a unique expression of the tenets of effective modern day leadership.

Herb Kelleher is a Santa

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 restaurant.  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 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 a 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! 

Cheryl Batchelder is a Santa

I made a major discovery when I revisited Moore’s poem about the night before Christmas.  Santa was an elf!!  Now, I had always thought of him as a cuddly grandfather figure that led a group of worker bee elves that made all the toys Santa delivered on Christmas Eve.  While I knew elves did not look like Will Farrell, I had them in the same category as the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz or the seven dwarfs who took care of Snow White.  But, Moore plainly describes Santa himself as “a right jolly old elf.”  It changes everything about Santa as an elf-leader.  He was like an older partner; a servant leader.

Cheryl Batchelder has been the CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen since 2007.  Before that she was the President of KFC.  When I interviewed Cheryl in her simple yet comfortable office, I asked her, “When you think about the last year as CEO, what are you most proud of?”  She could have talked about their spectacular growth and profits.  But, she focused on the development of leaders and the transformation of the organization into one that focused on inspiring servant leadership and nurturing strong partnerships with franchise owners.  Her bold work is described in here best-selling book, Dare to Serve—How to Drive Superior Results By Serving Others.

The Popeye’s purpose “Inspire servant leaders to achieve superior results” became a mantra and focus.  But, not as a wall plaque!  It starts with the daily actions of the “driver” (a.k.a., CEO) at the helm.  In the words of Batchelder: “No one ever met a plaque.  No one ever gave a plaque credit for inspiring them to serve…plaques don’t do that. People do.” Two Santa features you spot in Cheryl—passion (“a driver so lively and quick”) and humility.  If you were a bit apprehensive about being in the presence of one of the best CEO’s in the world, her humility melted your anxiety away.  To quote Moore again, “A wink of his eye and a twist of his head soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.”

Santa Claus has influenced the world for decades.  For 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 of children, but as a symbol of hope, joy and good will 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.

About the Author

Chip R. Bell is renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books including Sprinkles:  Creating Awesome Experience Through Innovative Service.  He can be reached at