Leading Like Willy Wonka

A while back and I was reading through the classic book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl. As I was reading, I realized that Willy Wonka is the blueprint for innovative leadership. If you have aspirations to become a great leader, look no further than Willy Wonka. While this sounds absolutely insane, upon further examination, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” reads like a business textbook. Here are the key lessons:

Always Dream Big

Willy Wonka’s personality exemplified “dreaming big”. That’s how his factory became popular in the first place. In the book, Wonka was known for confections that broke the mold while remaining profitable for his business. He was one of the first “disrupters”. What’s interesting about dreaming big is the fact that once you allow your mind to do it, you can do anything. Many successful leaders have a large, overarching vision. This vision allows them to navigate uncharted territory, while simultaneously empowering others to help make the vision a reality.

Giorgio Moroder, a dance music pioneer and arguably the originator of disco and pop music summed it up perfectly when talking about how he became a successful musician, “Once you want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want.┬áSo nobody told me what to do and there was no preconception of what to do.” Simply put, great leaders dream big and then conceptualize that dream to make it a reality.

Know How to Pull Levers

When reading “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and watching the movie adaptation, there is this very visceral imagery throughout of Willy Wonka simply pulling a lever or pushing a button, causing something magical to happen. What’s interesting is that great leaders do this as well. There is this misconception that a great leader is always the one in the trenches, chipping away at a task, while bossing others around.

But, like Wonka, a great leader knows which levers to pull to get the optimal result. These levers could be lighting a fire under someone to push them further than they thought, encouraging someone who may have lost motivation, or knowing which tool you can use to get the job done more efficiently. When talking about “hands-off” leadership, knowing how to tap into various resources to affect an outcome is exponentially more effective than trying to always get different results out of the same strategy.

Prepare the Next Generation

One of the more underrated leadership lessons gleaned from Willy Wonka was the need for every great leader to have a successor (spoiler alerts from a book written in 1964 are coming. You’ve been warned). If you think about it, the whole story that spawned two successful films is called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” not “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. What’s intriguing is that as delightful of a character Wonka is, the story covers the twilight of his career while centered around the story of Charlie, his eventual successor.

For all of Wonka’s greatness, he wasn’t immortal. To make sure that his business continued and grew even further, he needed to train someone to eventually take the helm. Enter Charlie, a boy whose pure heart, family background, and work ethic mirrored what Wonka wanted his factory to be. In John Maxwell’s book, “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, he discusses this concept in his final chapter, “The Law of Legacy”. Great leaders are also tasked with developing a worthy successor. You won’t work at the same company for the rest of your life. Wherever your life path takes you, wouldn’t you want to make sure that you leave your job/company in the right hands?

We see this played out today with companies like Apple, Microsoft, and many others continuing their success to a degree because the original founders left their companies in the hands of someone who would help take the company to the next level. This is a hard pill to swallow for many leaders, but if you can stomach it, you will have cemented your legacy. And if you did it right, you might find your leadership style resembling a certain eccentric candy maker…

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