Lessons for buyers from Hollywood

5 July 2010
I usually defer writing this column until a week before the due date. I like to think this is because I like the flexibility to be topical rather than my less-than-stellar time management. However, Stefan has already written about the BP oil spill and I am not going to talk about our World Cup performance as a metaphor for anything. Instead I’m going to use a topic that came up when watching Independence Day the other evening with my partner. We started talking about movie presidents and how each characterisation highlights a critical theme in the film such as heroism, leadership or corruption; and how Hollywood likes its lessons. The best lessons from films involve extremes of trust, integrity and general cheesiness. My favourite examples are often extreme in nature, but are all the more brilliant for it. Lesson 1: How to rally the troops in the face of insurmountable odds. This can require creativity, level-headedness, courage and a good helping of rhetoric. A textbook example is Apollo 13. The words “Houston, we have a problem” are nicely understated and the crew’s efforts to get back home embody the sentiment “failure is not an option”. Personal favourites of mine are Bill Pullman’s Independence Day rallying speech to a group of misfit pilots and Russell Crowe in Gladiator “unleashing hell” on his command. I am not sure he actually uses those words but it works for me. Lesson 2: Don’t always trust the guy at the top. Charisma without substance or moral strength is dangerous. For every inspirational story such as Nelson Mandela in Invictus there is a Nixon in All the President’s Men, Captain Smith in LA Confidential and even the Emperor in Star Wars, all ready to sell you up the river. Lesson 3: Beware of strangers bearing gifts. Anything involving an ancient artefact, lost treasure or unexpected windfall generally turns out badly for those involved. Sometimes you can get seduced into a mass illusion: think of The Truman Show or The Matrix and imagine the similarities with Enron or any other large accounting fantasy world. Lesson 4: If you know something’s wrong, speak up. In movie world this often saves lives, if not the planet. Look at Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day and Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow. In real life this may have stopped oil pumping into the Gulf of Mexico. Lesson 5: Focusing on the price alone is a good way to start a disaster movie. Health and safety violations loom large here. How about cutting corners in The Towering Inferno or not providing enough life boats on the Titanic? Sometimes it’s more a case that a character’s desire to make money means they ignore the obvious problem, like building in an earthquake zone (Earthquake, obviously) or shielding tourists from the truth in Jaws. Lesson 6: On top of everything, a sense of humour is essential. Sometimes, being brilliant, creative, courageous and inspirational are not enough. You have to make the world laugh with you. There are many examples of leaders in movies that pull this off. I suspect in the real world they would be taken to task for their irreverence. On that note, the final lesson is when you look at your environment or your leadership and feel you’ve wandered on to the set of Dumb and Dumber, it’s time to leave.
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