12 Leadership Lessons We Can All Learn from Seinfeld

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

I read too much of the news the other day. Filling my morning with politics, disasters, and general conservative hate-mongering was enough to sink into a well of depression. Too depressed to work actually.

So instead, I sat down and watched a classic Seinfeld episode. Procrastination? Of course. But at least I wasn’t depressed any longer. And in the process I remembered that the show’s ridiculous bosses not only left great memories, but offered their share of leadership lessons as well.

So in an attempt to rationalize further research into my favorite show of all time, here are 12 leadership lessons that we can all learn from 12 great Seinfeld bosses.

The head of Kruger Industrial Smoothing, noted for botching the Statue of Liberty job because “they couldn’t get the green stuff off,” made no pretense of his limited business sense and managerial talents. Unsure of whether his business is in the red or the black — “whichever is bad” — he knows to stick to his strengths, namely creating employee nicknames and enforcing Christmas present standards within the office. Aware of his own shortcomings, he’s able to surround himself with more qualified people to deal with the big problems — like when the “R” falls of the building and it now just says K-uger!

While Kruger’s example may be an extreme, our goal should always be to hire people better than us. Most people shy away from this, worried that if they hire someone smarter than them, it will reveal their own weaknesses. In reality, the opposite is true. When you hire for strengths to complement your own weaknesses, you drive innovation and excellence, improving both you and your company in the process. Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening at first.

J. Peterman may have been an eccentric boss, but above all he was authentic. He was a citizen of the world and inspired both himself and his customers through adventure. He wouldn’t hesitate to drop everything and take you to watch The English Patient, even going so far as to send you to the Tunisian desert for inspiration. Dedicated son and rare cake collector. Incredibly wealthy, but not above clipping coupons. He was unapologetically himself in everything he did.

In a time when “authenticity coach” is an actual profession and nonconformity is associated with unprofessionalism, we should all do our part to encourage people to bring their whole selves to work. Show off your eccentricities. Be proud of what makes you unique. When people see leaders who don’t fit the standard mold, it helps show people that leadership isn’t some exclusive club — everyone has the power to be one.

The Soup Nazi demanded perfection from himself and his employees — and refused to settle for anything less from his customers. He was disciplined and eccentric — “most geniuses are” — and we can all appreciate his crusade against public displays of affection. His dedication and high standards manifest themselves in his product — as evidenced by Jerry choosing bisque over his girlfriend and Newman’s appreciation for “Jam-ba-la-ya.”

Today’s exception quickly becomes tomorrow’s standard. The world has too many people that view mediocrity as an acceptable goal. Set your standards high and refuse to settle. And when you hold yourself accountable to the highest standards, you can hold everyone else accountable to them as well.

George’s supervisor at the Yankees, Mr. Wilhelm didn’t hesitate to build trust in his people by delegating high priority projects. And when he sees that George is struggling, he doesn’t take things over, instead providing some cryptic encouragement in the form of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” It’s only when he abandons his delegation model and does the work himself during a lapse in medication that things fall apart and George ends up in a mental institution. All before he succumbs to the allure of a carpet-cleaning cult — “Most of the world is carpeted. And one day, we will do the cleaning.”

Delegation rarely comes natural to leaders, but it’s the best way to expand your influence and empower others to work towards your vision. While it’s usually easier to just do things yourself at first, delegation is an investment. By giving people clear expectations, allowing them the freedom to develop their own methods and learn in the process, and provide guidance without taking things over, people are able to learn and take on these responsibilities. Most importantly, the best way to let people earn your trust is by trusting them in the first place.

Susan championed Jerry and George’s show while dating George on the side. As a reward for this poor judgment, she was vomited on, had her parent’s cabin burned down, and was fired from a high-paying network job. Oh yeah, and George’s choice for cheap wedding invitations ended up killing her. But other than that, they had a good thing going.

Workplace relationships are complicated in the best of circumstances. If you’re going to go down that path, make sure it doesn’t involve anyone in your reporting chain, a client, or a short, stocky bald man that lives with his parents.

Mr. Pitt was all class, appreciating fine socks, refusing to tolerate salt on his pretzels, and eating his Snickers bar with a knife and a fork. He didn’t hesitate to absorb himself into a magic eye puzzle, but when a merger between Morgan and Poland Springs fell under jeopardy, he channeled his inner fascist and sprang to action. And his dedication to Woody Woodpecker and the Macy’s Day parade should be an inspiration to us all.

As complicated as things can get sometimes, don’t hesitate to appreciate the small pleasures in life. It’s the small things, added together, that make the biggest differences.

While Kramer didn’t spend much time working, he did manage an NYU student intern, Darin, to take notes on conversations, mend chicken wire, and hold “high tea with a Mr. Newman.” Despite the NYU dean recognizing Kramerica Industries for the imaginary business that it was, amounting to “little more than a solitary man with a messy apartment that may or may not contain a chicken,” Kramer’s grand vision of a world without maritime oil spills inspired continued commitment. Darin refuses to let up, stating “I don’t care about the internship. I care about Kramerica!” Unfortunately, physics and reality eventually come around to, quite literally, burst their bubble.

Our accomplishments are often defined by our goals. If you push yourself for less, less will be what you both achieve and what you deserve. Dream big and refuse to settle.

Fed up with Pottery Barn catalogs, Kramer’s crusade against the mail found him illegally grabbed from the street and detained. The Postmaster General himself sat down to straighten him out, canceling a round of golf with the Secretary of State to do so. He takes his job seriously and in addition to being a postmaster, he’s a General. “And it’s the job of a General to, by God, get things done.” Two minutes with Atkins and Kramer’s begging for his mail.

It’s tempting to associate our intentions with actions. We start thinking about what we want to do and what we plan to accomplish. Yet until all of those great ideas become tangible actions, they’re not worth mentioning. Focus on action. And, by God, get things done.

Sid Farkus interviewed and hired George for a bra-salesman position. Impressed by George’s dedication, he promptly offered him the position in an interview. Fresh off the win and brimming with confidence, George made the ill-advised decision to feel the material of a woman’s coat sleeve. Justifiably upset, she brought the matter to Farkus, who promptly reversed his decision and fired George.

Toxic workplaces rarely start out as toxic workplaces. They become that way when management allows poor behaviors to happen without consequence. Clarify your values and hold your standards. It’s the only way to develop and protect the workplace culture you want to create.

Elaine’s boss at Pendant Publishing wasn’t above stealing a muffin-top bakery idea, but drew the line at inappropriate behavior with the office cleaning staff. Despite a series of misfortunes based on Elaine’s poor behaviors — overuse of exclamation points, costing him a major international account over a lack of a handkerchief, and claiming that War and Peace was originally titled War, What Is It Good For? — Lippman didn’t hesitate to reach out to her when he felt she could add value through her muffin-top expertise.

We tend to waste too much time, and sacrifice too many relationships, holding onto old grudges. It’s often in our best interest to give people another chance. Mistakes happen. People will disappoint you. Closing yourself off to the world each time this happens is not a sustainable practice.

As the acting president in Peterman’s absence, Elaine tried to reward the hard work of her employees with a party. Unfortunately, her dance moves of jerking thumbs and little kicks destroy her leadership credibility and make her a laughing stock in the office. Yet she’s able to re-establish herself as the leader when one of her employees is caught in George’s bootlegging scandal, bailing her out and even throwing down on George’s dad. “Well, he wrote the check, and I cashed it.”

The key component of leadership is trust. People need to see that you’ll be there to support them in times of poor judgment or when they make mistakes. If you stand up for people and show them you’ll be behind them in their mistakes, they’ll be much more likely to overlook your own occasional gaffes — regardless of dancing talent.

Steinbrenner recognized the value of a man who offered candid feedback, hiring George after he committed to doing the opposite to his unhealthy instincts. He loved calzones, believed George was a communist, and didn’t hesitate to scalp his owner’s box tickets at the front gate. Perhaps more capricious than the real Steinbrenner, he never hesitated to take a radical new idea and run with it, whether it’s moving the team to New Jersey to upset people, donning Lou Gehrig’s uniform, or shouting “I’ll say it again — I haven’t had a pimple since I was 18 and I don’t care if you believe me or not! And how’s this, you’re fired!”

Great leaders recognize that in tough situations, there’s rarely a clear right and wrong choice. It’s important to gather the facts, but at some point we all need to rely on our intuition and move forward. Indecision kills both momentum and morale. Very few decisions are irreversible, and it’s only in testing out different paths that we can move forward.

Enemy of the Status Quo.

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