Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Elf

A Reel Leadership Article

My latest book, Reel Leadership, is now available on Amazon. If you love movies and leadership, you will love this book.

Welcome back to another special edition of Reel Leadership. This is the third entry in the Christmas At The Movies series. Previous entries include How The Grinch Stole Christmas and The Polar Express. We’ve explored the leadership and life lessons hidden within these fantastic Christmas movies. Today, we’re returning to the movies for a modern Christmas classic: Elf.

Elf tells the story of Buddy The Elf (Will Ferrell) and his search for his birth father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan). Directed by Jon Favreau and written by David Berenbaum, viewers will find themselves in stitches as they laugh at Buddy’s crazy antics.

Will Ferrell dressed in a green suit with a green hat. Buddy the Elf from the movie Elf

But Elf is more than the story about Buddy. Elf is the story of discovering joy, seeking peace, and finding your place in a world you don’t feel you belong. It’s not only a great Christmas movie; it’s a great life movie.

Journey along with us as we take a look at the leadership lessons in Elf. You’ll soon understand how you can grow as a leader by watching movies like Elf.

Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Elf

1. Papa Elf (Bob Newhart):

Elves love to tell stories.

The movie opens with Papa Elf telling viewers a story. That story? The story of Elf. He also informs viewers that elves love to tell stories.

It’s true, don’t you know? Elf is a story told by an elf about an elf.


So, how does this relate to a leader? The story of Elf was fun, captivating, and engaging. Leaders need to learn from this story.

Think about the stories you can tell. You could tell the story of your first role as a leader. Or you could share a story with your team on how you overcame adversity.

Use your stories to become a storyteller to your team. They’ll see you as a person. And someone who has the experience to lead them.

2. After success, you have to prepare for the next success:

Santa Claus (Edward Asner) returned from what he thought was a successful Christmas run. He brought all the presents to the people on the Good List.

He shares with the elves how he was elated that things went smoothly (we discover they didn’t as he brings back a baby Buddy). With the celebration, he also shares how it’s time for something else. It’s time to prepare for next year’s Christmas.

Organizations look to go from success to success. There’s little room to celebrate and focus on past success.

While I love looking back, I know we must also look forward. We have to start preparing for what’s coming next.

Celebrate. Take time to rejoice in what’s been accomplished. But then look forward. See what needs to be done next to continue to be successful.

3. Santa Claus:

Some people lose sight of what’s important in life.

Buddy discovers a horrifying truth. His father, Walter, isn’t on the Good List. Walter is on the Naughty List!

This is depressing to Buddy. He loves Christmas. He loves giving. And now he knows his birth father is naughty.

Santa helps Buddy understand a little of what happened. Walter had lost sight of what was important in life. It’s not money or success. It’s not about material things. What’s important in life is the people around us and the lives we change.

We must be cautious not to lose sight of what’s important in our lives. Sadly, I’ve watched various leaders and friends stray away from what is important to what is temporal or naughty. They choose something they shouldn’t.

Decide to stay the path. Decide to choose to do what’s right. Keep what’s important in sight—Chase after that.

4. Leaders help others see the joy in life:

Watching Elf, you see Buddy has an overabundance of joy in his life. You may even become frustrated with how he sees greatness in everything.

From experiencing the world’s greatest coffee (it wasn’t, but he still had joy) to using a rotating door to decorating, joy filled Buddy’s life. 

He also helped others experience joy. 

Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) was a co-worker of Buddy’s at Gimbels, a Macys-like store. He fell in love with her and wanted her to experience what brought him joy. 

On one of their trips together, Buddy let her experience the simple things that brought him joy: the terrible world’s greatest coffee, rotating doors, decorating, and more.

We all experience joy to some extent. We don’t all help others experience the same joy.

As a leader, you can help others experience joy in their life. 

Look for ways to insert a little joy in the workplace. You might choose to throw a mini dance party or bring in hot cocoa for the team to enjoy. Or you might bring the team out to a baseball game or a video game night.

Find ways to insert joy into the workplace and the lives of your team.

5. Leaders set the tone of an organization:

Walter heads home after Buddy finds him at the Empire State Building. Buddy spills the beans that he’s his son. Walter finds this hard to accept.

When Walter gets home, his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and son Michael (Daniel Tay) are at the dinner table. They’re picking away at their dinner, which had been getting cold while they waited for Walter.

But Walter doesn’t sit down to eat. He grabs his plate, tells them he’s got work to do, and he’ll be in his office. 

Michael sees Walter’s example. He then asks his mom if he can eat dinner in his room. He gets denied, but the example has been set.

Leaders set the tone for their organization and teams. What the leader does, the team will follow.

Be aware of your actions. Are you taking an astronomical amount of vacation days? Do you come in late regularly? Are you a work-from-home guy but require your team to be in the office?

Your actions speak volumes. It will set the tone and demeanor of your people.

6. Buddy:

You sit on a throne of lies!

The Gimbel store manager (Faizon Love) announces that Santa will be at the store the next day. This fills Buddy with joy! He’s going to see Santa again.

Santa comes to Gimbel’s, but it’s not the Santa Buddy knew. The Gimbel’s Santa (Artie Lange) was a fake, a farce, a liar! 

Buddy sees that the Gimbel’s Santa isn’t the real Santa. And he calls out the fake Santa. He tells him that he sits on a throne of lies.

Whoa! Strong but true words spoken there.

Buddy wouldn’t let a fake Santa stand.

7. People will take you at your word:

Elf is humorous partially because of the fact that Buddy wears an elf costume throughout most of the movie. It’s this gaudy, green getup.

Walter is embarrassed by the way his son dresses. He tells him that if he wants to stay with him and Emily, Buddy would need to ditch the elf costume.

What does Buddy do? He drops trow and begins to change his clothes. As he does, Emily walks in and is given quite the surprise!

Buddy did this because he took Walter at his word. He understood what Walter said as literal.

Your people are like Buddy. They will listen to your words and take action based on them.

We see this happen regularly during brainstorming sessions. Leaders spitball an idea, and their team runs with it. The leader was just ideating, not meaning they should pursue what they said.

Be cautious with the words you use. Your people will take you at your word.

8. Do good work:

Walter’s boss, Fulton Greenway (Michael Lerner), enters the Greenway Publishing offices upset. He brings a copy of a book his niece had been reading. She wanted to know how the story ends.

What was wrong with the book? There were two missing pages.

Walter tries to peddle this off on the printer. He said the printers must have gotten lazy. They’ll look for a new printer. Then Fulton shows Walter the template for the book with Walter’s signature. 

Walter had signed off on an incomplete work and then tried to pass the blame to someone else.

Walter had become lackadaisical in his work. He let poor work go out the door.

How many of us are like Walter? We’re tired, exhausted, and just need something completed. We’re willing to shove bad out the door just so something ships.

We can’t do that if we want to be successful. We must be willing to put in the time, effort, and energy to do good work. Work that’s impactful, meaningful, and lasting.

9. Michael:

Buddy cares about everybody. All you care about is yourself.

Because of how Walter treated Buddy, he had left the house and wasn’t returning. This concerned Michael, Buddy’s half-brother. 

Michael went to his father at the Empire State Building to inform Walter that Buddy was gone. He burst in on a meeting with Fulton and the creative team. Walter tells him that this can wait.

Michael wasn’t having any of this. He had had it with his father. He saw that Walter only cared about himself. All others were pushed to the side.

Meanwhile, Michael saw the beauty of Buddy. Buddy cared about others. He put others first. That’s what he loved about Buddy.

Who do you care about? Do you care about yourself, first and foremost? Or do you care about others? If you do care about others, do you show it?

Great leaders know life isn’t about them. Life is about others and treating them well.

Care for others.

10. Small actions achieve massive results:

Santa’s sleigh had slowly been losing power as fewer and fewer people believed in him. The holiday cheer wasn’t there. This caused Papa Elf to build an engine to power the sleigh.

After Santa’s sleigh crashed, the engine was damaged. It eventually fell off of the sleigh. All the sleigh had to run on was Christmas Cheer, which was in short supply.

One by one, people begin to sing in Central Park. Santa’s sleigh, through these small efforts, began to take off. It wasn’t until Walter started to sing that Santa’s sleigh reached full power.

It was through small actions that Santa was able to power his sleigh.

Much like the small actions taken by the citizens in Elf, the small actions you and your people take will see huge results. Think of your small actions as compounding. 

Each action you take compounds with the one before it. Again and again, your actions build up to something massive.

Make sure your small actions are going in the right direction. One way or another, you’ll see huge results.

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