According to most sources, Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer was written in 1938 by a copywriter for Montgomery Ward. His name was Bob May and he wrote it for his 4-year-old daughter during the time of his wife’s struggle with cancer. There are multiple versions of the story that have differing timelines, but what’s important is Bob May’s focus on a characteristic that would (literally) out-shine all others – and how that had an impact on everyone involved.
We’ve all been in situations where out of the blue, we get an email announcement asking us to welcome a new boss – and it takes us by surprise and we wonder, why not me?
Rudolph was this kind of introduction – he came to play with this new shiny nose – and Santa has to explain to the rest of the team why this new hire is chosen for a leadership position – while no one believes this candidate is qualified. (muffled convo, “shiny nose, how’s that make him a leader?!?”)
After he first wrote it in 1938, Bob May’s story of Rudolph grew more popular. By 1946, Montgomery Ward delivered more than 6 million copies of Bob May’s book. In 1949, Gene Autry released a song based on Bob May’s writing – to become one of the best-selling Christmas songs ever.
Back to Santa’s conflict with his team – he has a lot of choices here. He can throw corporate under the bus – and say that they made him do it. He can forsake the long-standing work of Donner and Blitzen and chase the new (literally) shiny object. A good manager owns the decision and takes responsibility, even if it’s not theirs – and works to engage the previous existing team to help them understand – even when it’s confusing.
As a leader or HR professional, it’s really hard to make a decision here – every choice has pros and cons.
What Santa faces is a new situation – this night is foggy and Rudolph has a unique skill. If it were windy, maybe Dasher or Comet would be the right one to lead. If it were rainy, maybe it would be Donner or Blitzen. But it’s not. Rudolph shows up with some new tech – a shiny nose that’s going to displace some candidates for lead reindeer. These are his peers and it’s a night of difficult conversations for Santa.
What does that conversation look like? Well, one of the best management books ever is “How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen So Kids will Talk” by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish – and one of the pieces advice they give is - to give kids their wishes in fantasy. “Wow, it would be GREAT if we could have ice cream for breakfast, but…” Let them know that in a different circumstance, their dreams could come true, but it won’t happen today.
And I think that’s what Santa and his HR team can do here to talk 1:1 with the team. It’s important that Santa has these conversations himself, 1:1. (By the way, if you didn’t know, Santa’s reindeer all have documented personalities. I didn’t know this.)
- “Dasher, I know you love to go fast, and maybe next Christmas will have clear weather and you will lead the team on the fastest Christmas ever! – but I really need you tonight to support Rudolph and follow his red nose because his red nose will lead us through the fog, but he won’t succeed without your skill at speed.”
- “Cupid, you are the best of all my reindeer at bringing people together. You are affectionate and I think you understand that it's important for all of us to work as a team. Can you reach out to your peers and build a strong team for Rudolph’s first run?”
- “Comet – you are easy going and great with kids. Can you make sure kids are OK with our change on this foggy night?” Rudolph has a bright light, but YOU are the one with kids.
When we hear "Then how the reindeer loved him, and they shouted out with glee...” Well, we all know that didn’t happen on day one. That took some great management skills by Santa and his HR team, and some amazing coaching to build a strong team.
Santa here is awesome in finding the individual strengths and mapping them to the current Christmas Eve situation and painting a path for them to contribute – even if it’s not the lead reindeer.
While we’d hope that leaders can do this on their own, that’s not always the case. While Santa’s HR professional was likely Mrs. Claus, in the real world, HR professionals can support teams by making sure that when a “Rudolph” shows up – whether that is a person or a new technology that displaces people from their “lead reindeer” position - that Santa and Mrs. Claus are there to help comfort people to know they will always play an important role. The team will be stronger if they can retain the institutional knowledge of the Dashers and Donners and build a strong team going forward.
HR professionals can often see these situations with more clarity than team leaders or team members – and if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows.