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The Leadership Mistakes of Willy Wonka

The Leadership Mistakes of Willy Wonka
Image credit: Willy Wonka | Warner Bros. Pictures
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I fondly remember having read Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a child and enjoying the story immensely. So, when my six-year-old daughter wanted to watch a movie this weekend, I thought why not check out the 2005 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory featuring Johnny Depp. What was once a favorite childhood fantasy story quickly became a 2016 parable on how not to lead an empire. Willy Wonka, boss, dictator, or leader? Here are the four lessons learned from the worst entrepreneur in cinematic history.

Don't hire Oompa Loompas

Poor leaders hire Oompa Loompas, people who simply follow orders. There's only one free thinker in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, and it is Willy Wonka. The Oompa Loompas are assigned their very specific jobs and they do not question authority. In the 2005 movie version, Wonka lays off all the factory workers because they give away his candy secrets to competitors. Rather than encourage the employees to reinvent and disrupt the candy industry with their own new ideas, he gets rid of them all, and hires Oompa Loompas who are under his complete control. Poor leaders believe the product is more important than the people who make it. Great leaders understand that their success depends on hiring people who push the envelope, not people who simply lick the envelope, put a stamp on it, and send it.

Related: Employee Management: Reward the Best, Replace the Worst

Don't banish the rule breakers

Interestingly, Willy Wonka himself is a rule breaker. The people who build the biggest and best empires are the ones who don't ask permission. They take risk. They break rules. In "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", the rule breakers are banished and he gives the factory to the straight laced kid who sticks to the rules and lives cautiously. As an entrepreneur, I would have hired any of the four other candidates over Charlie because they all had the gumption to take some risk. Who's going to make a better leader, goody-two-shoes Charlie, or the insanely competitive Violet Beauregarde who is willing to test out the new gum herself rather than subject an Oompa Loompa to the dirty deed? 

Related: Effective Employee Management? Look to the Golden Rule.

Think out your exit strategy

When considering an exit strategy for a business, a great leader considers all options, including leaving the company to the people who made it successful. I mean how long have these poor Oompa Loompas been busting their humps to churn out candy at the hands of the OCD/ADD up-tight Wonka? How are they going to feel about a brand new, totally unqualified, leader coming in the door to run things? Not good, Wonka. There's got to be a better exit strategy than creating a golden ticket contest.

Related: How Poor Management Creates Zombie Employees


Companies who innovate tend to do so by getting outside the walls of their empire. They are outside testing the products of their competitors, experimenting with new ideas, and consuming the information and environment around them. Willy Wonka's employees are virtually imprisoned inside the walls of the gigantic factory thereby limiting the ability of the team to innovate. Wonka has stopped all of his secrets from leaving the building, but has also halted all new ideas from coming in. Great leaders understand that there are risks involved in keeping all doors opened at the company, but there's even greater risk in keeping them locked up and chained.