The Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my favourite films. It’s a wonderful, irreverent, but faithful adaptation, in turns funny, moving and uplifting with some great songs along the way. The special guest star (Michael Caine) plays Scrooge and the rest of the roles go to the Muppet characters you’d expect. Who else would play the earnest, hard-put-upon, kindly Bob Cratchit but Kermit the frog?
The Muppets have been a part of my life since childhood – a group of old-fashioned manually operated puppets who still capture our imagination in a world where digital graphics dominate. Each new generation has found something to love and relate to in them.
It’s perhaps overlooked that Kermit is a businessman – or businessfrog. He is the manager of a small theatre which every week has to put on a show to awaiting audiences, and he leads a team which is as about as diverse as you could imagine. What’s more, he’s constantly fighting crises on every front, to keep the business going.
There’s a lot we can learn from Kermit’s approach to business. For a start, he’s committed to a clear purpose. Every week that inspirational, Muppetational show must go on.
He has to deal with difficult characters in a high performing team, including a cast member who thinks she’s bigger than the show, and a lead comedian who thinks he’s funnier than he is. His regular customers pay mostly for the pleasure of insulting him and the performers. Every week, numerous things go wrong – props explode, colleagues are injured, scenery collapses, and that’s just what the customers see on stage. Behind the scenes, he’s got a lot more problems. But he throws a kindly arm around one colleague, expresses his frustration at another (usually Fozzie), massages the ego of another and somehow keeps the whole team together. He takes accountability when things go wrong, walking on stage if necessary to talk to audiences. And he shares credit when things, occasionally, go right. He’s rewarded by a team that week in, week out, turn up for him, for each other, and for the show.
Kermit teaches us patience, kindness, perseverance, good-humour, dedication and acceptance. He shows it’s all right to feel sometimes that you want to give up as long as you never do. And he reminds us that ‘it’s not about you’, it’s about everyone.
Every Muppet has a role to play. Fozzie’s irrepressible energy and good humour keep him and others going. Miss Piggy’s fierce temper and dedication to her ‘art’ and her fellow Muppets make her a ferocious protector of the team (don’t get on the wrong side of her lest you get her pork chop), Ralph the Dog leads the band despite what appears to be myopia, the Swedish Chef baffles us with his recipes, the Bald Eagle attempts to bring dignity and grandeur to the chaos. Even the member of the team who only has the one thing to do, Gonzo, eventually does it.
The Muppets remind us of the vital importance of human values and soft skills, values and skills we will need more than ever in 2020 and beyond. They include respectfulness, thoughtfulness, creativity, fun, infectious enthusiasm, humility and above all, kindness and empathy. These are hard to teach a robot. That’s why they will be at a premium. They are also values and skills that are sometimes missing from the heart of businesses.
The Muppets also remind us that being human is messy. It involves a lifelong series of mistakes, misjudgements and miscalculations. But somehow, if we have the resilience to keep doing what we know is right, and if we take time to consider the needs and feelings of those around us, somehow we’ll achieve something wonderful. A life enriched. A customer delighted. An employee recruited. A project completed. A product launched. Maybe if you’re lucky, a shareholder who’s happy (once in a while even Stadtler and Waldorf actually laugh with, not at, the show).
You can choose your favourite Muppet and you’ll find something quintessentially human and admirable in them. Muppets are funny, quirky, grouchy, selfish, angry like any of us. But they are also fundamentally kind and collaborative. They work together to solve their problems and achieve a common goal. Every week, no matter what has gone wrong or who’s been upset, the music is played, the lights are lit, everyone’s dressed up right, the guest star has been introduced and the show has gone on.
The word ‘muppet’ is sometimes used as a mild insult. But this Christmas, do yourself and everyone else a favour: be a Muppet. And remember, being a Muppet is not just for Christmas, it’s for life.
Andy Milligan, Founding Partner, The Caffeine Partnership
Image Credit: Mark Zimmermann from Silver Spring, MD, USA