Five leadership lessons from Willy Wonka

Gene Wilder was a master of creativity and comedy. Everybody remembers their favorite lines of his. While he played key roles in films such as Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and Silver Streak, Wilder’s best-known work is his portrayal of Willy Wonka.

Working in the creative field on behalf of progressive credit unions around the country, the lessons from Willy Wonka help shape our thinking and decision-making process every day.

  1. It’s okay to make mistakes. Mistakes and failure aren’t embraced in many corporate cultures. Having a No-Mistake-Mindset is one sure way to cause the slow, spiraling death of your team, your brand and your credit union. Lack of failure means lack of risk. One of Wonka’s famous lines shows that he embraced mistakes and rolled with them: “So much time and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it. Thank you.” Often within our organizations, we see a mistake and instantly start blaming others instead of looking for a solution. Ask the questions that will help you learn from the failure in order to build strength among the team and the organization as a whole. If we make a mistake at YMC, it’s celebrated as an opportunity to learn and grow (after the solution is in place, of course).
  1. Creation or destruction is up to you. Veruca Salt had a pretty bad attitude, right up until she was labeled a bad egg and disappeared down the trash chute. When Wonka introduced his Golden Ticket winners to a new candy, Veruca showed just how little imagination she had. “Snozzberries? Who ever heard of a snozzberry?” Wonka’s response is one that should be written in every corner office and every boardroom: “WE are the music makers, and WE are the dreamers of dreams.” We’re often quick to snap at new ideas with every reason why something won’t work, or isn’t a good idea. How many great ideas have been destroyed before ever seeing the light of day? Are you a creator or destroyer on your team?
  1. Expect the unexpected. Oh, how true this is for credit unions! We keep risk to a minimum to be in better control of the outcomes. However, playing it too safe has led to many unnecessary mergers—turning once flourishing credit unions into irrelevant relics. Sometimes we need to get on the boat, go through the colorful and scary ride and recite Wonka’s words: “There’s no earthly way of knowing/Which direction they are going… There’s no knowing where they’re rowing…” We have a saying around YMC, given to us by Chris LoCurto: “When you freak, you freeze.” When the going gets tough, many people stop and make no decision at all. Oftentimes that can be more detrimental than making the wrong decision.
  1. Embrace silliness. If you were to walk into the YMC office during normal business hours, you could hear a rat tinkle on a cotton ball from 3 miles away. Our team works hard. But when it comes to embracing the creative process, we play hard too. We embrace the famous words of Wonka: “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.” After 5, especially on Fridays when we conduct our “think and drink” meetings, no topic is off limits. It’s often the silliest and the most out there idea that somehow leads to a more realistic idea, which then becomes a full-on project for a credit union that yields historic results.
  1. Love and kindness is everything. Disrespect is one thing we don’t tolerate at YMC. Whether it’s internal among team members or external from our clients, we expect courtesy. We’re all human and deserve to be treated with respect. One of the most touching moments of the 1971 cult classic was when Charlie put the stolen Gobstopper on Wonka’s desk. “So shines a good deed in a weary world.” A weary world indeed. Whether interacting with team members, credit union members, vendors, or people in general, be kind. The moment I realized the people who work at YMC are people with hopes, dreams, and fears just like me (and not machines) was the moment things turned around in our culture. It’s a safe place. Mistakes are allowed. Silliness is embraced. Ideas are welcome. There’s love and kindness in every team member at YMC. We carry the same values to every client who we are allowed to serve.

In 2002, Wilder was asked about his thoughts on success during an interview with Larry King, and he responded, “Well, you know, success is a terrible thing and a wonderful thing. If you can enjoy it, it’s wonderful. If it starts eating away at you and they’re waiting for more from me, or what can I do to top this, then you’re in trouble. Just do what you love. That’s all I want to do.”

If you’re in a leadership position, whether as CEO, CFO or CMO, Wonka left a few great lessons that not only can put a smile on our face, but inspire to make our credit unions a better place for our teams and our members. I’m thankful every day that I get to do what I love. It’s all I want to do. What about you?

Bo McDonald

Bo McDonald

Bo McDonald is president of Your Marketing Co. A marketing firm that started serving credit unions nearly a decade ago, offering a wide range of services including web design, branding, ... Web: Details