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5 Leadership Lessons from Halloween Movies and TV

By Carly Barry

Lessons in leadership can be found everywhere—from those we learn day-to-day on the job, to news articles spotlighting companies whose leadership causes them to thrive or fail, and even from the latest blockbuster you watched Friday night at the movie theater. We just have to be open to finding them.

In honor of the spooky season upon us, I’ve rounded up a few important leadership lessons that can be learned from Halloween movies and television. I should also preface that the movies, and one TV classic, I reference are of the “family-friendly” genre, being the season of life I’m in is one that centers around my two small children. But I’ll be honest and admit that even if I wasn’t watching movies accompanied by my kids, I’d probably gravitate towards the not-so-spooky ones!

(Warning: there are some spoilers below!)

1. The Power of Teamwork in Hocus Pocus

boiling cauldronThe movie Hocus Pocus is the story of a boy named Max living in modern-day Salem, Mass. On Halloween night, he accidentally brings three witches who were executed during the famous Salem witch trials back from the dead by lighting the cursed Black Flame Candle. According to the curse that brought them back, they only have that night to steal the souls of children to keep themselves alive, otherwise they’ll turn to dust by sunrise. Needless to say, these witches are up to no good. It’s up to Max, and a team that includes his friend, Allison, and his sister, Dani, to stop the witches and save the kids.

Max exemplifies the idea that “leadership is a team sport” and works collectively with his team, where they illustrate the benefits of having a shared perspective to outwit the witches—frequently bouncing ideas off each other to come up with plans to stay ahead of the witches’ antics. And when one of the witches captures Dani, Max exhibits the willingness to do what’s best for his team (and family) and immediately forces the witches to take him instead, saving his little sister, because he was confident he could implement a quick idea that would result in no one being kidnapped, after all. Like all great leaders, Max was able to quickly size up a complex situation and take an action that would steer his team away from trouble.

2. Leading with Empathy in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

pumpkin patchThe main storyline of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown centers around one member of the Peanuts gang, Linus, who is set in his belief in what is known as the “Great Pumpkin.” While all his friends go trick-or-treating and then head to a Halloween party to celebrate the holiday, Linus prefers to wait at the local pumpkin patch for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin, which he is positive will rise out of the patch and fly into the air, and then deliver presents to all the children around the world. Even though his friends make fun of him, he doesn’t leave the patch the entire night and only leaves when his sister carries him home, half asleep.

Linus wakes up the next day, feeling extremely disappointed that he didn’t see the Great Pumpkin, and has a visit from his good friend Charlie Brown, who positively exhibits the important leadership skill of empathy. Charlie consoles his friend Linus by responding to Linus’ feelings, telling Linus how disappointed he must be that he waited all night at the pumpkin patch and he still missed out on seeing the Great Pumpkin. Linus seems to respond well to this effort until Charlie Brown takes the conversation a step further, attempting to cheer Linus up by sharing that he’s done stupid things in his life, too. Linus is infuriated with this statement from Charlie, showing Charlie that he probably could’ve done without this attempt to relate to what Linus was feeling. Charlie misread Linus’s feelings of overall discouragement from missing out on seeing the Great Pumpkin as “feeling stupid” for believing the Great Pumpkin was real. Charlie shows us that sometimes it’s best to stick with empathy unless you’re sure that disclosing your own personal feelings about the situation will help the person feel better or see the issue in a new light.

Linus reinforces that he still believes in the Great Pumpkin, responding to Charlie that he vows he will see the Great Pumpkin next year, which illustrates another positive leadership trait. Linus shows off his unwavering focus with this response (and in his earlier intention to spend the entire night waiting at the pumpkin patch), along with an unwavering belief, which great leaders also have—because they believe their focus will truly bring about the outcomes they are seeking. While unwavering focus and belief are positive traits for leaders, it’s also important to mention that great leaders shouldn’t be so focused or glued to their agendas that they’re unable to see and own their missteps—great leaders need to be able to admit when they’re wrong, too.

Fingers-crossed you see the Great Pumpkin this year, Linus!

3. Building Trust in Ghostbusters

ghost of a young girl in a roomThe 1984 version of Ghostbusters is the story of three professors who study paranormal activity at Columbia University, but then get kicked out and decide to start their own ghost extermination company, where they trap ghosts for money. With slow and steady success, the Ghostbusters become wildly popular, ridding New York City of nearly all its unfriendly spirits, until an agent from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts the Ghostbusters in jail for being frauds. With the Ghostbusters in jail, ghosts run rampant around the city, prompting the mayor to bring in both the Ghostbusters and the EPA agent to argue their sides. After hearing the Ghostbusters talk about an upcoming disaster of “biblical proportions” headed for the city, the mayor chooses to believe the men, allowing them out of jail to fight the city’s latest, and supposedly deadliest ghoul.

It is the mayor’s decision to believe the Ghostbusters that demonstrates the importance of trust when it comes to not only leadership, but to business success in general. Even in a lighthearted, fictitious movie like Ghostbusters, the stakes are high when it comes to trust. By not believing the Ghostbusters, the mayor could have put the city in jeopardy and caused thousands of lives to be lost. In the business world, where the stakes are also high, trust has everything to do with success, and is even linked directly to employee engagement, retention, productivity, and innovation.

In a recent DDI blog, we shared the responses we received when we posed the question, “What makes your boss great?” A common theme throughout many of the responses was that good bosses had trust in the individuals that made up their teams, and one person even went as far to say that trust “is the highest and most basic trait you need in any relationship to be successful.” So, the next time you’re watching Ghostbusters, of course enjoy the movie, but use it as a gentle reminder of the importance of trust, and be sure to ask yourself, “Am I doing all I can to ensure there is a strong sense of trust in all of my workplace relationships?”

4. The Importance of Leader Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in The Nightmare Before Christmas

jack-o-lantern faceThe Nightmare Before Christmas is the story of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, a mythical place filled with all the parties that make Halloween spooky—including monsters, ghosts, zombies, witches, vampires, werewolves, and more. As Pumpkin King, Skellington both organizes and ensures Halloween goes off without a hitch every year. However, after this year’s Halloween celebration, Skellington yearns to lead something new. He finds himself with access to other towns that represent other holidays, including Christmas. He is in awe of Christmas and hurries back to explain what he saw to the residents of Halloween Town. Even though the residents don’t understand this new holiday, Skellington makes the unanimous decision to allow the people of Halloween Town to take over Christmas this year.

When Skellington pitched the idea of taking over Christmas to his Halloween Town residents, they were not only unimpressed by his idea, but they kept trying to compare it to Halloween, revealing their lack of understanding for what Christmas is, as well as an overall sense of confusion for what Skellington was trying to accomplish. Skellington ignores their apprehension and confusion, assigning the Halloween Town residents to various Christmas-themed jobs anyway to prepare for the upcoming holiday. Ignoring and dismissing his residents lack of understanding and concern over their new roles may not have been intentional, but it reveals Skellington’s lack of emotional intelligence (EQ) as the leader of Halloween Town. But what is emotional intelligence?

From the perspective of what leadership behaviors define a high EQ, you can think of it as the “soft” skills essential to have a good, trusting relationship with team members—such as being supportive, listening to team member concerns, maintaining the esteem of your team members, and listening and responding with empathy. Skellington dropped the ball by being so focused on his own agenda (turning Halloween Town into a Christmas wonderland) that he overlooked the concerns of his team. His idea might be brilliant, and his intentions are good, but without lack of buy-in from his team, he’s going to have a hard time successfully achieving his goals. Lucky for Skellington, leader EQ is a skill that can be learned and fine-tuned!

5. Being the Right Kind of Nice in Casper the Friendly Ghost

ghost decoration outdoorsCasper is a classic story of good versus evil, and the plot focuses around Casper, a.k.a. “the friendliest ghost you know,” his three mischievous uncles, and an irritable heiress to the mansion where these ghouls live. When the heiress learns that the mansion she was left contains treasure, but is also haunted by Casper’s three nasty uncles, she calls for a “ghost therapist” named Dr. Harvey to come live in the house to rid the house of the spirits so she can access the treasure. Dr. Harvey brings his daughter Kat along, who befriends and falls for Casper.

A ghost so nice that someone can fall in love with him? This sums up Casper. One of the first scenes of the movie reveals Casper serving the Harvey’s breakfast to earn their trust and make up for some nasty haunting attempts his uncles made to try to get them to leave the house. This is one of the many nice things Casper does for the Harveys, along with having Kat’s back in several ways as she navigates life in a new school and tries to fit in with a new crowd. Casper’s pleasant behavior and kind demeanor stands in contrast to his uncles’ nasty disposition of, which only wastes times and hinders progress from happening through the story, revealing a leadership lesson: it’s more productive in the long run to be nice.

We’ve all heard stories of cruel leaders blinded by their own agendas who forget that care and respect are keys to building the most fundamental part of any relationship: trust. Without trust (and not to mention clear and effective communication, especially during uncertain times), a team can waste time being scared and hypothesizing why certain things have happened, which can lead to a rumor mill sweeping up the valuable time of team members, as well as being responsible for a dip in morale.

But being a nice leader isn’t the only answer to preventing this type of thing from happening. It’s being the right kind of nice. It’s not just being a nice leader with a nurturing personality—it’s also holding team members accountable for meeting goals, addressing performance problems as they arise, and never tiptoeing around people to avoid conflict. Nice is being able to handle necessary conflict in a way that preserves a person’s dignity, while also bringing out their best.

Can you think of other spooky movies with underlying leadership lessons (good or bad)? Share them with us on Facebook or tweet us @DDIworld!

Learn how to unleash hidden potential in your organization and leverage the power of diversity and inclusion.

Carly Barry is a writer for DDI’s Marketing Communications team. When she’s not working on articles, Carly can be found chasing—her two young sons and the finish line for several local 5ks and half marathons.

Posted: 25 Oct, 2018,
Talk to an Expert: 5 Leadership Lessons from Halloween Movies and TV
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