It's the holiday season, which hopefully means you're taking the opportunity to rewatch one of the best holiday movies ever made, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Not only is the film full of fun and a creative masterpiece, it is one of the most educational as well, particularly regarding leadership, organizing, and skill-building. Here are 5 of the top leadership lessons from The Nightmare Before Christmas:
First, vision underlies everything. From the outset, we're introduced to a world very different from our own. In Halloween Town, what is scary is pleasant, disgusting is beautiful, and terrifying is good. As one character says in the opening, "Life's no fun without a good scare. That's our job, but we're not mean. In our town of Halloween." This informs the way people live and every action people undertake in Halloween Town. In the same way, every organization has a particular worldview or vision that determines what is pleasant, beautiful, and good. In fact, Halloween Town is basically an organization - it's a group of individuals working together in a structured manner to achieve a common goal, to put on the scariest Halloween possible each year. That vision informs what decisions are made and how people act in the organization. In leadership, it's important to explore the vision that dominates your organization, explicate the worldview that ought to guide your organization, and work to convey that worldview to others. This leads to the second lesson...
Second, crafting, communicating, and sharing a common organizational vision is really difficult. The drama of the movie centers around Jack Skellington, the de facto, although notably unelected, leader of the town, attempting to shift the organization's goal to putting on a warm, joyful Christmas. At the start of the movie, Jack no longer shares Halloween Town's vision. After doing the same thing year over year, all he thinks of are the rote actions of the holiday. After discovering Christmas Town, he attempts to provide a new vision for Halloween Town. But he runs into difficulty at each stage of the vision process. (a) He has difficulty defining the vision (during the town hall meeting, he says he can't describe the feeling of Christmas). (b) He does not effectively communicate the vision to others (and he knows it... during the town hall he says, "At least they're excited, but they don't understand... that special kind of feeling in Christmasland"). (c) And it is abundantly clear in the movie that even when the town goes through the motions of making presents and getting ready for Christmas, they don't really share the vision Jack is trying to bring to reality. This is what causes the problems when Jack attempts to fill Santa's shoes later on.
Third, developing new skills requires more than just reading about them; it takes time and practice. You only develop true competency of a new skill when you understand the purpose of each action required for it. Jack gets this when he tries to explain the concept of a present to the town; after others guess how hideous the object inside might be he responds, "that's not its purpose." But he forgets this when he attempts to run Christmas himself without fully understanding why he each part of the holiday exists:
I've read these Christmas books so many times
I know the stories and I know the rhymes
I know the Christmas carols all by heart
My skull's so full, it's tearing me apart
As often as I've read them, something's wrong
So hard to put my bony finger on
Or perhaps it's really not as deep
As I've been led to think
Am I trying much too hard?
Of course! I've been too close to see
The answer's right in front of me
Right in front of me
You know, I think this Christmas thing
It's not as tricky as it seems
And why should they have all the fun?
It should belong to anyone!
Reading books, memorizing lessons, and engaging in theoretical or scientific study alone does not make one competent in an area. Performing the task. Trying things out. Doing it over and over again is critical to success.
Fourth, the best way to learn and come up with new ideas is to immerse yourself in something new. After Jack's attempt to run Christmas fails, he doesn't give up. He becomes more inspired than ever before, and recognizes that by thinking in a radically new way, he has new ideas for how to make Halloween even better in the future.
Well, what the heck, I went and did my best
And, by gosh, I really tasted something swell
And for a moment, why, I even touched the sky
And at least I left some stories they can tell, I did
And for the first time since I don't remember when
I felt just like my old bony self again
And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King
That's right! I am the Pumpkin King, ha, ha, ha
And I just can't wait until next Halloween
'Cause I've got some new ideas that will really make them scream
And, by gosh, I'm really gonna give it all my might
For anyone who still questions this interpretation, there is an alternative ending where Patrick Stewart serves as narrator and asks Jack:
And would, if you could, turn that mighty clock back
To that long fateful night—now think carefully, Jack!
Would you do the whole thing all over again,
Knowing what you know now, knowing what you knew then?
And he smiled like the old Pumpkin King that I knew,
Then turned and asked softly of me… “Wouldn’t you?”
Fifth, constantly strive to understand who you are and how you can be the very best possible. Even if you get restless, even if you try new things, even if you experience setbacks, continue to learn more about who you are, what you ought to do, and how you can be even better. By the end of the movie, Jack regains his original inspiration in the vision of Halloween Town and his role as the Pumpkin King. Most importantly, he does so with a newfound appreciation for what that means and how he can be the scariest Pumpkin King possible (be exposing himself to new people, new systems, and new ideas).
Here's what you should not take away from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Change can't happen, so just keep doing the same thing. Change can happen. Trying new things and taking risks are good things. They just take time. Keep in mind: Jack tried to completely overhaul an organization in 1.5 months (between November 1 and December 25). This was only Jack's first attempt. He may have lamented that "things never work out like they should," but really, it was just one time that things didn't work out. And, at the end of the movie, when snow started falling on Halloween Town, people started to understand that Christmas was different; showing them was more effective than telling them about the difference.
As an added bonus, Halloween Town's two-faced politician is a classic archetype of the hypocritical and incompetent politico that just isn't depicted on the Silver Screen nearly enough anymore.