Leadership And Management Lessons From The Christmas Train

A Christmas Reel Leadership Article

“The Christmas Train” is a Hallmark Movies and Mysteries production based on David Baldacci’s book.  It’s a love story with a bit of humor, mystery, the dangers of a train stalled by a snowstorm, and an ending with a great twist.  The multiple themes are best summarized by a repeated line: “There’s something about a train.”   Delightfully, when viewed from the perspective of leadership and management, there are some good insights.

leadership lessons and quotes from The Christmas Train

  1. You’re a Director; You’re Not the Star

Max Powers (Danny Glover) is an extremely successful Hollywood Director.  His success is clearly obvious from his reputation, the accomplishments acknowledged by the people he meets on the train, even the display of all the luggage he has on-board.  Yet “Max” is low-key, displaying a calm, humble assessment of himself and his accomplishments.  He responds to compliments with smiles and honesty.  He’s observant about what’s going on around him and gently pushes the characters, particularly Eleanor and Tom into the actions he’s hoping for.

Early in the story, when Max first meets Tom and invites him to help “his writer” on his current project, Tom questions: “How can I say no to Max Powers?”  Max responds with a calm but persuasive:  “Trust me, you can’t”  Just a few minutes later when Tom and Eleanor meet for the first time in years and both try and escape, Max again controls the situation:  “Nobody’s going anywhere.  Whatever went on between you two in this other lifetime, that can be settled here.”  It’s powerful, irresistible but in a way that earns respect.

Too many leaders and managers elevate their role into a marquee starring role.  They demand the attention, the reverence, and the accolades of a superstar.  Max Powers demonstrates much more of a “servant” or “supportive” leadership style that’s proven to be more effective.  While he clearly “directs,” which leaders must do, he does it with a very calm, effective style.  I really liked one of his closing lines: “You’re giving me too much credit.”  That’s an attitude all leaders and managers should have.

  1. Observation and Listening Is Key

Tom Langdon (Dermot Mulroney) is former globetrotting war correspondent who lost the love of his life and embarks on a cross-country train ride to find his way at Christmas.  But even before the journey begins, Tom displays skills that every leader and manager should develop and practice.

Tom is observant.  He is constantly evaluating his surroundings – probably a live-saving skill of a war correspondent.  He notices things and people around him. For example, he notices a fellow passenger frequently observing the clouds, portending an upcoming blizzard that will strand the train in the mountains.  There’s an interesting, but realistic paradox, with Tom.  He’s a highly skilled observer in his role as a former war correspondent and now as a passenger on the train.  But his failure to observe situations in his personal relationships is what cost him his relationship years earlier with Eleanor.

Tom also demonstrates great skills as a listener, then recording key points in his war-torn leather notebook.  When people talk to Tom, he does more than just acknowledge them – frequently at a very personal level – he follows up with questions that focus on the other person, not himself.  He captures and connects information.  As the mystery unfolds, he at one point points out that a character who tells him her parents were married on a train had previously said it was her grandparents.  He spots clues as to what is happening.  Good leaders and managers see and record the clues as to what’s happening around them.

  1. Be Aware of Hidden Strengths or Talents

Tom Langdon is also aware of one of Eleanor’s “secret” skills, portrayed in one of my favorite scenes from the movie (and the book).  There’s an egotistical, arrogant “chess master” who regularly rides the train, invites other riders to challenge him, then not only beats them but derides them in the process, concluding “Isn’t there anyone out there who can give me a good game?”  Tom responds with “she will…,” pointing to Eleanor.  Eleanor learned a strategy, from a Rabbi in Israel, that works particularly well against arrogant players who fall into the trap in three moves.  It obviously works perfectly in the story.

Tom learned about this strength because he and Eleanor were lovers in Jerusalem – but every person has skills and strengths that can be valuable to an organization.  An effective leader or manager learns about his or her colleagues and subordinates and is willing to call for those strengths and skills when they’re needed.  This is beyond skill inventories that may reside in a database.  This is personal awareness of the individuals in an organization.

  1. Goals Are Often Best When They’re Stretch Goals

Eleanor (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) is a top screenwriter, and former war correspondent with Tom, whose reputation is “fixing scripts.”  She’s a top member of Max Power’s team who takes existing stories and “turns them into winners.”  But she’s never written a screenplay of her own.  Max has lured her onto the Christmas Train with the challenge of writing her own first screenplay, a love story on a train during Christmas.  Throughout the movie, Max supports her in pursuing the challenge, encourages her multiple times when she thinks she’s not getting anywhere.  He enlists Tom as part of his plotting, to assist her in developing ideas for the story.

A strong leader or manager is willing to set stretch goals for his or her people.  But he or she is also willing to guide the achievement of the goals with ideas and support.

  1. Ready, Aim, Fire or Ready, Fire, Aim

One of the classic management debates, sparked by the “In Search of Excellence” mantra of a “Bias for Action” is the still brewing debate of acting quickly versus waiting for more information or the “perfect time.”  As it becomes obvious that this trip is about Tom hoping to re-start his relationship with Eleanor, “do you believe in second chances?”  Agnes Joe, a mysterious passenger, prompts Tom with “There’s a lot of things you’re not seeing.  Think of a chess game.  You can either make your first move, or you can wait, wait and wait until your queen is gone and you’re off the table.”

There are two great lessons for leaders and managers here.  First is the importance of giving people a second chance, allowing mistakes that may lead to great opportunities. The second is the value of the “Ready, Fire, Aim” message.  In today’s faster and faster-paced world, one of the mantras for innovation is to “pilot everything.”  Take an idea and put it out there, test it.  Be willing to fail, then try, try again!  When Tom tells Agnes that he’s tried to talk to Eleanor about their relationship, Agnes replies with a simple “Try harder!”

  1. Calm and Creative Are Powerful Attributes

Regina (Jesse Stanley) is the conductor on this cross-country train ride.  My impression, both from the book and the movie, is that she’s a good portrayal of a front-line manager or supervisor.  In the movie, there are three traits which Regina portrays that represent important traits for every leader or manager.

Regina is dedicated to providing good customer service to the passengers on the train.  She’s attentive, informative, polite, and confident.  As the story moves down the track to its dramatic conclusion, the train becomes stranded in the mountains by a blizzard.  The train is running low on food, fuel, and power for heat.  Regina remains calm under the increasingly dangerous circumstances, focusing on the safety of her passengers.  At the same time, recognizing the fear in a group of young boys, she’s creative in offering activities to keep them engaged and not focused on the dangers.

Customer service, calm, and creative – excellent traits and skills to be developed and practiced by leaders and managers.

more leadership lessons and quotes from the christmas train 2

  1. Taking Risks

In the final scenes of the movie, the train is stalled in the mountains by a blizzard, without communications and running low on fuel, food, and power.  Tom and Eleanor, their relationship getting closer and closer to being re-established, decide to leave the train and embark on a life-threatening trek in the snow to reach a mountain lodge they hope is close-by.  Tom’s immediate reaction to the danger is “Right now I’ll take the craziest idea you’ve got.”  “Don’t do this,” urges Max.  This storm was not part of Max’s plan.  But Tom and Eleanor agree to go on “one more adventure” to save everyone on Christmas day.  Teamwork and an “if it was easy, anyone could do it” attitude drive their willingness to take the risk, even though they’re told it’s “almost impossible.”

Leaders take risks; they assess situations based on as many facts as possible and the resources available (in this case, the snowshoes packed for passengers’ holiday outings).  But they take risks and no leader will be successful if they play it safe with the practices of the past.

There are other lessons that can be taken from “The Christmas Train.”  Agnes Joe (Joan Cusack), a passenger who turns out to be a railroad detective, shows the same observation skills as Tom.  She endears herself to passengers, comments on things she sees and hears in a way that provokes people opening up and providing more in-depth information about themselves and situations.  Higgins (Terrence Kelly) demonstrates the wisdom of an experienced veteran in sharing his observations in key situations.

I’ve enjoyed reading and listening to this book multiple times since its original publication.  The movie offered new insights when I decided to view it with the leadership and management lens.

This was a guest article from James W. Schreier, Ph.D., SPHR. James is a management consultant with interests in leadership, management, hiring, retention, and organizational culture. He also works extensively with strategic exploration and career issues. He can be found at http://www.performance-project.com

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