This is Halloween… and Change Management

By Beth Harris, CHRP

“Our man Jack is King of the Pumpkin patch
Everyone hail to the Pumpkin King now!

This is Halloween. This is Halloween.
Halloween! Halloween! Halloween! Halloween!”

               – “This Is Halloween” by Danny Elfman

In the nearly 10 years since it’s release, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has become a stop-motion classic of a duo-holiday cannon.  It tells the tale of Jack Skellington, Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, who grows bored of his Halloween ways. Happening upon a portal to Christmas Town, he is struck by the existence of a whole new reality.  Grasped by the vision to make Christmas his own, Jack leads his followers into the unknown with great spirit, but little knowledge. Musical mishaps and misaligned festive mingling ensues: a great film for the family and just plain fun.

However, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is much more than an imaginative ode of the season and an entertaining movie; it also provides an illuminating case study of unorthodox change.  Through a different lens, the story of Jack’s journey, and the impact of his ‘vision’ on others, tells a timeless business tale—one which illustrates different features of leadership and change which can be analyzed and applied to business practice.

Jack’s Perspective
The story begins with a leader who has grown bored with a role that has become personally redundant and unfulfilling; the King of Pumpkin Town is bored. Jack  craves inspiration, creativity, and reconnection to his main purpose in life. Recognizing the need for change, and happening upon a portal to a previously unknown dimension of opportunity, in this case Christmas Town, Jack jumps—and takes his followers along for a disastrous ride.  So thrilled by the opportunity to venture into a new industry and so focused on his need to have something new, Jack assumed all of the people would benefit from this change and his personal problems would be fixed.  Unfortunately, Jack did not possess any knowledge of this new industry; his attempts to ‘deconstruct‘ Christmas into its core physical components are woefully misguided.

Jack the Leader and the Four “Ps”
Though a well-liked and highly-animated leader, Jack’s initiative was doomed to fail from the start because he did not have proper conditions to support his plan for change. According to Larry Stout, in order to initiate change, the proper conditions must exist to serve as catalyst and foundation alike; these are the four “Ps”: People, Place, Position, and Period (Stout, 2001, p. 42-46).

People, Place, Position, and Period
Jack had the people. The people of Halloween Town revered him as their leader. Jack had the position. In Halloween Town, he could make things happen.

However, in the context of place, Jack gets stuck when he decides to lead his people well outside his field of expertise.  In short, Halloween Town and Christmas Town are as different as, well, as different as Halloween and Christmas. Though well-versed in all things Halloween, Jack’s lack of alternative festive knowledge leads to inevitable disaster.  Master of the autumnally macabre, the period (Christmas) Jack led was misaligned with his venture from its wintery start.

As a result, the people’s view of Jack’s leadership changed; they were unable to follow him simply anywhere.  Warned by at least one member of his community who saw the misfortune waiting in the wings, Jack did not listen. Lacking an inner team with whom to explore, support and transition the change Jack desired, what transpired is not unexpected.

Leadership & Jack
Leaders and managers exist in all organizations and are essential to the development and advancement of a company—especially during change. Employees of all levels need guidance and support to adapt with the changing work environment and rely on a well-planned strategy for the company. While a leader and manager within a business environment play different roles, both are essential to the success of the organization. (Kotter, 2001)

Jack’s followers did not lack for enthusiasm, but sorely lacked the perspective, skills and knowledge critical to the business of Christmas; while processes evolved, as Jack matched people by their closest related skill set, a working structure did not stand a chance. Moreover, worsening matters in translation, Jack did not monitor the change process which resulted in compounded misunderstandings and a conflicted definition of the holidays.

Perhaps the greatest failing of Jack as a leader was his lack of prior failure.  A natural leader within his area of expertise, Jack did not have to work at developing his followers, nor listen to any of their ideas.  After all, everyone looked to Jack to lead. In this way, his leadership appeared more of a cult following rather than inspiration and motivation.  Even venturing into such new territory as Christmas, he failed to address the team for input; when input was offered in the form of offering, Jack simply pushed forward: a key failure in communications.  As with any change, clarity of communications from management and leadership is key for success.

Change: Influence and Implementation
1.  Influencing people to change:
Jack was followed unconditionally by devoted “ready to where” followers, who he had no problem convincing to do as he asked.  Leaders require “ready to where” followers to help motivate and move the change plans forward.  However, the people of Halloween Land were devoted to a fault, not paying attention to their own ideas, needs for clarification or need for change. The one resistor in the story, Sally, attempted to warn Jack of the potential of disaster, but Jack did not listen. The disaster of Jack’s plan showed the importance of resistors in change and the vital role has in developing a solid plan for change.  Jack’s personal need for change created the underlying urgency, but because of poor communication, his followers could not understand how to achieve that change.

The people followed Jack because that is what they always did, not because he created a sense of urgency with clear guidelines and meanings for the change. (Jellison, 2007, p. 48-50)  Jack’s plan was severely underdeveloped, which created an unclear vision and resultant miscommunication. The elements of an effective vision include the use of a mission statement, along with a description of the purpose, values and direction of the change (Yukl, 2009, p. 123). The lack of this led to Jack’s inability to monitor the progress of the plans.  Although Jack delegated, the people didn’t understand the purpose of their tasks. With so much focus on the end product (a Halloween-esque version of Christmas), Jack spared none on the process of getting there: motivating, monitoring and adapting to the needs of the process.

2. Change implementation:
The success of change implementation is dependent on the leader’s behaviours. Jack’s actions during the change implementation lacked effective communication of a clear vision, lack of urgency for the need of change, and neglected to monitor the process of change (Yukl, 2009, p.130).  Quite simply, Jack did not fully understand the true meaning of Christmas. In his process of attempted understanding, he kept to himself and learned the only way he knew how: scientific method and logic. He didn’t look into other areas of skill development to become fully competent. This lack of competency created the initial miscommunication, as the townspeople could not possibly fully understand a concept that escaped even their leader.  In the end, Jack proved that you can’t lead what you don’t know.

How Jack’s role can be applied to the business world:
When leading change in a business environment, it is important to have clear vision and purpose for the change. The leader must be driven by more than personal need for change and conditions that support change need to exist. Influencing people to change requires an assortment of different followers, all of which need to be listened to for further development of change. Leaders need to be efficient in listening and communication. This applies to the employees and all of the stakeholders that have invested interest in the organization. Customer, employees, general public and investors need to be heard to comply with any modifications of the organization. Managers and leaders play equally essential roles in leading change. Jack’s leadership crisis shows what can happen if these components are not implemented in the change process. These are lessons we as emerging leaders can take to heart.

Beth Harris is the Communications Portfolio lead for BC HRMA’s Vancouver Island Advisory Council. She works with the Vancouver Island Health Authority as a Disability Management Administrator.

Work Cited
Jellison, J.M. (2007). Managing the Dynamics of Change. Chapter 3: Influencing People to Change. McGraw-Hill. Retrieved from Pearson Custom Business Resources Coursepack: Bus 322 – Leading Organizational Change
Kotter, John P. (1990). What Leaders Really Do.  Harvard Business Review, December 2001, 3-12.  Retrieved from Pearson Custom Business Resources Coursepack: Bus 322 – Leading Organizational Change
Stout, L.W. (2006). Time For A Change. Ideal Leadership Series. USA: Destiny Image.
Yukl, G. (2009a). Leadership in Organization. Chaper10: Leading Change in Organizations, p.298-331. Prentice Hall/Pearson Education (Upper Saddle River), NJ. Retrieved from Pearson Custom Business Resources Coursepack: Bus 322 – Leading Organizational Change

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  1. Carla Clark says:

    Delightful read.

  2. Sheri says:

    This is a great example of change management practices. Loved this article.

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