Quotes And Leadership Lessons From The Polar Express

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 to the second movie in the Christmas At The Movies series. It’s a fun look at Christmas movies and the leadership lessons they can teach. We’ve partnered with our church, The Gateway Church, to provide supplemental content as they share the faith-based lessons these movies can teach.

Red movie theater curtains

Today, we’re diving into the leadership lessons in The Polar Express. Fun fact for those of you who haven’t been following Reel Leadership and the blog for an extended period of time, I welcomed my friend, James W. Schreier, to share his thoughts on it. He’s a lover of leadership and trains. It was a perfect fit for him. Now, we’re bringing you our take on this family-friendly movie.

The Polar Express is based on the 1985 book. It’s a heartwarming tale of growing up, losing faith, and then regaining it. Living in Michigan, The Polar Express has a nice connection with the mention of Grand Rapids, one of our larger cities. 

Buckle up. Punch those tickets. And let’s dive into the leadership lessons from this classic 2004 animated movie.

Black train with its light on going down a snowcovered track. Scene from The Polar Express

Quotes And Leadership Lessons From The Polar Express

1. Leaders try to understand what is truth:

The Boy (Daryl Sabara) had reached an age where he began to doubt whether or not Santa Claus was real. He began to look into the history of this myth.

What did he do? He looked through the Encyclopedia entry for the North Pole, tried to stay awake to see what happened, and examined his parents and their habits on Christmas Eve.

Leaders are truth seekers. They hunt out the truth so they can pass it along to their teams.

Seek for truth. Pick up your Bibles, dig into leadership experts’ content, and immerse yourself in learning.

Be a seeker of truth.

2. The Conductor (Tom Hanks):

Well, you comin’?

The Polar Express stopped by The Boy’s house. It pulled onto the street and The Boy ran out to see the commotion.

There, The Conductor sees The Boy. The Conductor invites The Boy to hop on the train.

He wanted him to be a part of the trip to the North Pole.

Great leaders are like The Conductor. They invite people along for the journey.

Who are you inviting along? Have you invited anyone on the journey with you?

Now’s the time.

3. Great leaders stop for others:

The Polar Express made one last stop. It was at a rundown home with a Lonely Boy (Hayden McFarland, Jimmy Bennett, Peter Scolari). The Lonely Boy was invited to hop on the train. He declined.

As The Polar Express began to pull away, Lonely Boy changed his mind. He began to run after the train with all his might. Despite this, he fell short of getting on the train.

Until The Boy pulled the emergency brake.

The Polar Express stopped. The Conductor looked around, wondering who pulled the brake. When The Conductor discovers why The Boy had pulled the emergency brake, he lets Lonely Boy get on the train.

There are circumstances where people will hesitate to join your team. They’ll hem and haw and you may feel like they need to be left behind.

I want to caution you about leaving others behind. I know it’s a popular personal development trope that you must leave behind people who aren’t ready or willing to grow.

That’s hogwash.

You’re a leader. You’re a grower of other people. Stop for others. Help them along their journey. Be the one to pull them forward. 

4. Our journeys can be long and arduous: 

Every person on The Polar Express had to have a ticket. That ticket allowed access to the train and the ride home.

The Boy had seen Hero Girl (Nona Gaye) bring a cup of hot chocolate to Lonely Boy. On her way out, she left her train ticket on her seat. The Boy picks it up and tries to get it to her.

Upon exiting the car, he has to try to cross a gap to the next train car. He hesitates, and Hero Girl’s ticket flies from his hand. It then takes a long, crazy journey.

The ticket fell into the snow. Wolves then run past and kick up the ticket. A bird swoops down and picks up the ticket. The bird brings the ticket to its baby. She tries to feed it to the baby bird when the baby bird spits it out. The ticket rolls down a slope and back into the train.

What a journey!

We can feel like that ticket. We feel kicked around, spit out, run over, and more. We wonder when our leadership journey will see fruit.

I want to encourage you. Our journeys aren’t quick. They evolve over time. Things change, we change, and we find our place.

Don’t give up faith as you struggle forward. Steel yourself. Know your mission, purpose, and whose you are.

You can then move forward with confidence.

5. The Boy:

She can have my ticket.

Little did The Boy know that Hero Girl’s ticket had completed its journey and returned to the train. When The Conductor discovered Hero Girl didn’t have her ticket, The Boy offered his to her. 

While his offer was rejected, he did something noble. He owned up to his mistake (losing her ticket) and tried to make it right. 

We have to do the right thing. We have to give of ourselves and to our people.

Be willing to lay yourself down so you can help people continue their journey. It’s through self-sacrifice that significant progress is made.

6. The Boy:

I want to believe.

The Conductor rejected The Boy’s offer of his ticket for Hero Girl. He took Hero Girl away and The Boy chased them down. 

He climbs up the ladder to the top of the train, trudges through the snow, and meets a Hobo on top of the train. They talk, and the Hobo asks The Boy about his persuasion on the Big Man (Santa!)

The Boy answers that he wants to believe. He’s struggling but really, really wants to.

We’re all like The Boy at some point, aren’t we? We want to believe. We want to believe that:

  • Things will get better
  • There’s purpose to our work
  • We’re making a difference
  • Others buy into our vision
  • There’s a God out there

Faith is a powerful motivator. It will drive us forward with a dogged determination that can’t be beaten down. Keep your faith.

7. There’s something waiting for you:

The Polar Express arrives at the North Pole and there’s a massive celebration about to get underway. Santa will choose the person to give the first Christmas present to.


The Boy, Hero Girl, and Lonely Boy get separated from the rest of the kids on the train. They wander away into a world that is unknown to them.

They walk through a factory full of presents. Inside, there’s a present addressed to Billy (the Lonely Boy). Billy gets excited. He finally gets a present! There’s something waiting for him.

You may feel like your leadership journey will never end. There is an endpoint to your journey. It’ll come sooner than you expect.

But there’s also something waiting for you at the end of your journey. There’s peace, contentment, the knowledge you’ve done something good.

Know there’s something waiting for you.

8. Find specialists:

The Boy, Hero Girl, and Billy hopped onto an aircraft headed toward the celebration. It’s filled with presents and now three extra bodies. Their excess weight weighed down the aircraft, almost hitting the gigantic Christmas tree. 

The elves realized that the aircraft needed lift. That’s when the specialists lept, literally, into action. A contingent of elves leaps from the aircraft. They pop their chutes and float safely down to the ground. This gave the aircraft lift.

Those on the ground realized these elves were The Flying Elves. A team of special elves who could do amazing things in the sky.

Who are your specialists? These people on your team leap into action when things look dire. They know their unique skills and abilities and use them to right the ship.

Have specialists on your team. They will help you get through the tough spots because their unique talents are suited for such tasks.

9. Santa:

There’s no greater gift than friendship.

Santa saw Hero Girl. He went to her and affirmed her. Then he saw Billy. Billy was no longer Lonely Boy. He had made friends.

Santa recognized this. He mentions that Billy found friends, and that’s the greatest gift of all (I will digress and say there is a greater gift, the gift our Savior gave us when he died on the cross, but friendship is a close second.)

Leaders are often lonely because they’ve struggled to make friends. They feel they must lead alone or that friends will drag them down. 

Stop with that negative thinking.

Friends will be your greatest gift on your leadership journey. You’ll have someone to hold you up. I often think of the story of Moses in Exodus when I think about friends holding one another up. Moses had to hold his hands up, but his arms grew tired. This is when Aaron and Hur came alongside him. They helped hold his arms and hands up.

What kind of friendship is that?!? 

It’s the kind every leader should desire and have. Seek out friendships.

10. We all have something to learn:

The Conductor punched the tickets for The Polar Express as the passengers entered the train. The Conductor punched a few letters into each ticket. We see that with Know-It-All’s (Eddie Deezen) ticket. The Conductor punched LE into it.

The Conductor punched the tickets again as they reentered the train from the North Pole. This time, he finishes the words he started.

Once Know-It-All’s ticket was fully punched, it read LEARN. Billy’s ticket said DEPEND ON, then changed to RELY ON and COUNT ON when he flipped it. Hero Girl’s ticket said LEAD. And, finally, The Boy’s ticket said BELIEVE.

Each character had something to learn. Know-It-All needed to LEARN. Billy needed to know that he was dependable and reliable and steady. Hero Girl needed to know that she could lead. The Boy needed to believe. 

We all have more to learn on our leadership journey. Never stop learning. Never stop growing. Never stop believing.

If you enjoyed this Reel Leadership article, you may enjoy our collection of Reel Leadership articles eBook. You can get this eBook for free by signing up for updates by clicking here.
Follow Me