5 Reasons Why Santa Is a Great Front-line Leader


This time of year, people across the globe turn their attention to the North Pole, where Santa Claus and his army of elves are preparing for the annual Christmas Eve delivery of gifts to millions of homes.

But there’s much more to this Christmas miracle than just a gravity-defying sleigh and team of reindeer.

FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service combined couldn’t pull off what Santa achieves year after year. Somehow, he oversees a year-round toy production and gift-wrapping operation while simultaneously tracking the behavior and wishes of every boy and girl. And he manages to execute everything without a hitch while keeping to a deadline that hasn’t been missed for some two millennia.

How does Santa do it? I’m convinced he uses many of my front-line leader principles.

Don’t believe me? Here are five examples:

Taking care of your people
Every good front-line leader knows that your top priority is taking care of your people by making sure they have the resources they need to perform at the top of their skill level when they are at work and to provide for themselves and their families.

Santa takes this idea up a notch by providing on-the-job training to his elfin workforce and on-site housing that protects them from some of the harshest weather conditions on the planet. His wife, Mrs. Claus, even prepares home-cooked meals for them.

Healthy organizations need transparency, and that requires constant communication up and down the ranks. I keep in touch by going to the front lines of our operations on a weekly basis for question-and-answer sessions with employees. I also welcome and encourage direct emails from workers, and I respond to each one usually on the same day and most of the time within minutes.

We’ve all seen images of Santa mingling with his elves on toy factory production lines. And even with his hectic schedule, Santa makes time to personally answer, often by hand, every letter he receives from hopeful boys and girls laying out their wishes for the holiday season.

Go to the gemba
Gemba is the Japanese way of referring to “the real place.” At Scripps, we use the word to describe when managers spend time in the places where the real work of our organization takes place. Being there allows them to see for themselves how workflow processes work (or don’t work), ask questions of front-line employees, discover inefficiencies, connect on a personal level with workers, and brainstorm with them about ways to make things better.

Santa doesn’t just go to the gemba, he literally lives in the gemba – his house and toy factory are next door to each other. And in the weeks leading up to the big delivery day, Santa visits shopping malls and public gatherings in the smallest towns and the biggest cities where he gathers crucial intelligence about the latest gift trends, often delivered by analysts sitting on his lap.

From the elves who make the toys, to Mrs. Claus who makes sure everyone is fed, to the reindeer that power his sleigh, to the engineers who constructed the sleigh and ensure it is durable enough to last a global overnight journey, Santa has seen first-hand the importance of every contributor to the Christmas mission.

Situational awareness
When I worked as a police officer before starting my career in health care, I learned the necessity of situational awareness. Knowing your surroundings and being aware of the state of mind of people around you can mean the difference between life and death when a routine call turns into a crisis. Managers can use some of those same tactics to stay on top of their workplace and be prepared to deal with the unexpected.

Santa knows who’s been naughty and nice. You can’t get more situationally aware than that! And this mysterious intelligence also speaks directly to another key front-line leader principle: Holding your people accountable.

Bringing the mission to life
Leaders often talk about the values that their organizations embrace, but they don’t always demonstrate those values in a visible way. At Scripps, we’ve built credibility among our employees and the people we serve by participating in volunteer medical relief missions after Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and wildfires in Southern California.

Santa’s mission IS his life. The gifts he leaves under each tree remind all of us to be grateful for what we have, to give what we can, and to cherish the traditions that bind us to our past.

Happy holidays!