Learning from the movies
I spoke last week at Lucasfilm, as part of their leadership speaker series. This has brought the connections between movies, development, and leadership straight to the front of my mind.
I mean, people at Lucasfilm know how to create a great story. My sense of the typical adventure story goes something like this: young and green (potential) hero takes off—either intentionally or by mistake—on some important quest. Along the way, he is tested just to the edge of his capacities. He is often betrayed—by someone he thought he could trust or by his own flaws. He discovers the voice inside him that leads him to a central purpose and his own goodness. He succeeds against all the odds and is wiser because of the journey. Roll credits.
There are derivations on this. Sometimes the hero is older and needs to discover the healing power of love and connection. Often the hero is exposed to some older, wiser being who speaks in parables the hero must come to understand. Sometimes the movies push against each of these stereotypes for the shock value of giving us something other than what we expect—but by and large audiences like suspense and excitement, and then they like things to come right at the end. Only superb movies can mess with the formula and still win big at the box office.
So there is this classic human narrative. We are green, we are challenged, we are confused about whom to trust, we seek out external wisdom and then find our own growing wisdom, our own center, and that makes us better.
It might not be surprising that this same narrative that holds our attention at the cinema is the one that takes our lives. Leaders—all of us really—begin in a less mature, more confused space. We search out guides to help us—often our own leaders—and sometimes (often?) we put our faith in the wrong place and feel betrayed. Eventually many of us come to find our own sense of what matters, our internal leader. And, sometimes, we become the wise ones for other to follow. The story repeats.
In a story so classic as this, why is it we have a hard time recognizing it and making the journey a little easier for each of us? I mean, most of us will not be tested with Nazis or Voldemorts (thank goodness!) but with the tiny daily supports and betrayals of our everyday world: a boss who recognizes that you are better than you know and pushes you to take a difficult assignment, a colleague who seems to pass off your work as his. These would make relatively boring movies, but they create the spice of our lives. Why then, do we not create ways to make use of these potentially developmental events—and why don’t organizations push us and support us to grow each day?
This is the leadership question, and here is the leadership answer: organizations must do this, and leaders must be the ones who create the vision to ensure this new possibility. Here’s my idea for a new movie:
A thoughtful leader, not quite sure of her own mind, decides to make her organization more supportive of the growth of the people in it. She encounters doubters—and often even doubts herself—but she perseveres, believing in her vision. She finds ways to create learning spaces inside the work: making simple changes like focusing on understanding the problem before solving it, having meetings where people really think together rather than simply report out to one another, and unpacking the assumptions inside people’s perspectives rather than taking them as true. There are monsters—the constant roar of time and the tiny knives of constant busyness. She recruits many to her cause and together they discover the treasure trove of the developmental workplace: increasing agility, creativity, and even wisdom.
Roll credits. I love a happy ending. If I had run into any producers during my time in California, I was going to see if I could convince them. Since I didn’t, maybe I can convince you that you could lead your workplace to this fantastic new place. What do you think?
(By the way, I couldn’t resist the photo today. How often does a person get to hang with Yoda and R2D2?)