First posted on Forbes Online on 12/16/2011
Like everyone else, I’ve cheerfully hummed, whistled and sung along to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for as long as I can remember. But when I listened carefully to the lyrics this holiday season, I realized I’d missed the underlying message of a song that teaches invaluable lessons about the challenge of running a successful company.
The story, you’ll recall, takes place at Santa’s workshop, a small business operating in isolated conditions in a remote rural location. Under those kind of circumstances, fellow workers become a true family, with all the positives and negatives that can entail. “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,” a new member of the delivery and shipping department, possesses a unique physical appearance that is immediately obvious from his mocking moniker: he “had a very shiny nose.” How shiny? “And if you ever saw it/you could almost say it glows.”
You’d expect Rudolph to come in for some teasing. But this is not the candy-canes-and-sugar-plums part of Santa’s operation. This is the Teamsters, and in the dark and cold of a North Pole winter, horseplay turns to harassment and outright ostracism. “All of the other reindeer/Used to laugh and call him names./They wouldn’t let poor Rudolph/Play in any reindeer games.”
With nowhere to go and nowhere to hide in a hostile work environment, the situation looks increasingly grim for Rudolph until, without warning, the owner of the business personally intervenes in an utterly unexpected manner.“Then one foggy Christmas Eve/Santa came to say,/”Rudolph with your nose so bright/Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”
In one fell move, Rudolph goes from the bottom of the pile to the top of the heap, from being a teased and ridiculed outcast to having a lock on the most coveted and prestigious job on the toy delivery team. Presumably, he bumped aside another, more senior reindeer in the process. And how do his colleagues react to this shocking reversal of fortune? Here’s what the song tells us: “Then all the reindeer loved him/As they shouted out with glee.”
Then all the reindeer loved him? Ho-ho-ho!
“They hated him,” a psychologist friend confirmed. But with The Big Boss in the Red Coat designating Rudolph as his go-to guy, the other reindeer weren’t about to show their true feelings. “Patronage,” added my friend, who may be a bit jaded from living his whole life in Chicago.
“Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer?” My guess is behind his back they called him “Rudolph the brown-nose reindeer.” Or worse.
So why did Santa risk this kind of workplace disruption? After all, he could have halted the hazing with a winked reminder about the consequences of being naughty, not nice. No one wants to end up on the wrong side of Santa’s list-making.
Perhaps it was a simple act of kindness, admirable in intent if not in execution. However, the song implies that what Rudolph’s co-workers saw as an aberration – his glowing nose – Santa saw as a disruptive innovation that could dramatically improve productivity – “Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” The problem with this navigation explanation is that it makes little sense when you give it more thought.
Santa isn’t staffing a start-up, and this isn’t his first time around the block (or globe) on Christmas Eve. Presumably, Santa’s reindeer are inbred for the kind of internal radar that allows birds – or airplanes, for that matter – to unerringly traverse continents on moonless nights in utter darkness. A little fog was a pretty minor obstacle. Moreover, whether in the middle of the Arctic or when landing on a rooftop in a well-lit suburban subdivision, the illumination from one “glowing” nose isn’t going to make much of a difference.
I think the secret to Santa’s real motivation comes from the song’s last couplet –“Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer/You’ll go down in history.” The song has been recorded by everyone from Burl Ives to Barry Manilow and from theJackson Five to Dolly Parton, not to mention showing up in plays, movies and books. You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Santa, a savvy manager, was clearly engaged in a clever rebranding exercise
onsider for a moment: apart from Santa himself, what do you think of when you think of Santa’s workshop? We know just about as much about Mrs. Santa as we do about Mrs. Columbo, and, unless you’re a trivia expert on elf names, they’re all interchangeable. As for the reindeer, if you can get much beyond Donner and Blitzen without going to Google, you’ve got a better memory than I do.
Yet thanks to the immense and enduring popularity of this song, everyone knows Rudolph. More to the point, everyone can identify with the way Santa elevated him from obscurity to star power. Before the term “reality TV” was a twinkle in some producer’s eye, wise old Santa understood the extraordinary brand-enhancement power of a Christmastime story of pain and redemption.
My psychologist friend, grounded in everyday reality, had more down-to-earth advice for Rudolph as he goes out into the night pulling Santa’s sleigh with eight other reindeer spread out behind him. Said my friend, “He better watch his back.”