George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and the New Language of Leadership

What we can learn from the Andrea Gail to face the storms that threaten our organizations

“Skip, what are we gonna do about those numbers? They suck,” Bobby says sheepishly on the bridge of the Andrea Gail, played to perfection by Mark Wahlberg.

“The boys are talking? About how I lost it? Billy Tyne’s lost it? Things get a little slow, and they’re ready to draw and quarter you,” George Clooney’s character spits back.

What follows is a pivotal moment in the movie and a powerful lesson on leadership.

The movie, of course, is The Perfect Storm, based on the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger. It’s a cinematic account of what might have happened in October 1991 on the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing boat lost at sea with no survivors during a once-in-a-century collision of two Atlantic weather fronts and a hurricane. A perfect storm.

Bobby takes the helm as Captain Billy Tyne goes below deck and lashes out at his crew for their cowardice and disloyalty. He then announces his plans for turning things around, a trip to the Flemish Cap, way past the usual sword-fishing waters of the Grand Banks and thousands of miles from their home port of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

This decision would doom the vessel to be swallowed alive by 120-mile-an-hour winds and waves ten stories tall.

The Old Paradigm of Leadership

The dialogue aboard the Andrea Gail, created from a sense of each character’s real life story, is pure fiction. What rings true, however, is the scriptwriters’ representation of the paradigm of leadership we’ve worked in for decades.

Here are its central tenets:

  1. Leaders have all the answers.

  2. Questioning leaders is an act of disloyalty.

  3. Success comes from doing more of the same. Much more.

For decades, we’ve worshipped the greatness of heroic leaders, men and women who magically have the answers to all the problems they face. That’s why they’re leaders. Mere ordinary people wouldn’t know what to do when confronted with insurmountable odds. Would they?

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Of course they would, but our paradigm of leadership doesn’t allow for this. The old paradigm of leadership exalts managers over team members simply by virtue of their being in management. This narrative is just as fictional as the movie’s dialogue on the Andrea Gail. Yet, it’s accepted as gospel truth.

When team members question a leader in this paradigm, it’s viewed as an act of disloyalty. Who questions a hero? You don’t do that! Keep quiet and obediently follow (to your death, if need be).

And finally, this paradigm embraces an unyielding definition of success: doubling down on what you’ve been doing already. Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead! Anything less is cowardly.

The New Paradigm of Leadership

Fortunately, this old paradigm of leadership is being torn down before our very eyes. Its deconstruction has come from a series of leadership disasters similar to the demise of the Andrea Gail. In its place, a new paradigm is emerging with a new language to support it.

Here are its central tenets:

  1. No one has all the answers.

  2. Thoughtful questioning uncovers creative solutions.

  3. Success comes from interaction, insight, and execution.

This new paradigm of leadership recognizes that no one has all the answers in the highly complex, fluid situations we find ourselves. This is not an attack on leaders, however brilliant. It’s a realization that they are human beings, and as such, are not endowed with supernatural powers, including omniscience.

Consequently, the very best leaders don’t view themselves as heroes with all the answers but as catalysts for sparking the genius of the entire team and leveraging that genius to uncover creative solutions.

“In setting direction for their organization, Multipliers have a very different approach,” Liz Wiseman writes in her bestselling book entitled, simply, Multipliers. “They aren’t limited by what they themselves know. They push their teams beyond their knowledge and that of the organization. As a result, they create organizations that deeply understand a challenge and have the focus and energy to confront it.”

Success, then, comes from the insight that emerges from the interaction of differing points of view, like iron sharpening iron. That insight may conclude that doubling down on what you’ve been doing already is, in fact, the right course of action. But it doesn’t arrive at that conclusion by default, and it most certainly doesn’t accuse people of cowardice when other options are proposed.

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More often than not, insight gained from thoughtful questioning and collaborative interaction yields an innovation no one has imagined until this point in time. Option A collides with Options B and C, creating an entirely new path forward, consisting of Options D, E, F, and G.

Listen, Learn, and Lead

This new leadership paradigm, then, has a new language to support it. Language that demonstrates curiosity and fosters collaboration, instead of giving orders to obedient followers. Here’s a start:

1. How do you view this situation?

The framing of any problem is key to finding its solution. That’s the point of this question. If you frame a problem improperly, you’re destined to arrive at the wrong solution.

For example, on the Andrea Gail, the problem was framed by how to get a record swordfish catch back to port from the Flemish Cap and set the market price. So it went without saying that Captain Billy Tyne would charge, full steam ahead, into the storm. But if the problem was framed by how to survive as a small crew of six in an ailing commercial fishing boat during a deadly Atlantic storm, you arrive at a different solution entirely.

The first question a leader should ask team members, then, is how they view the situation at hand. Pose it especially to frontline team members who have a firsthand sense of how customers are experiencing your company’s products and services. Leaders locked in a conference room, pooling their own out-of-touch perspective, deserve the disastrous results they deliver. Sadly, however, their employees don’t.

2. What would you do about it?

This next question asks team members to step from the theoretical framing of a problem into practical steps of action, the true end game of any theory.

I once asked this question of an employee who had just started working for me. He stood in stunned silence.

“What’s wrong?” I replied.

“No one’s ever asked me that question here before.”

How sad. He was an extremely bright team member but kept to himself in his own quiet cubicle. When queried, however, he added immense value to most any project, and I quickly made a habit of checking in with him.

3. What are we not considering?

This third, but certainly not final, question to ask recognizes that groups as well as individuals can get stuck in a monolithic mindset. George Orwell in his prescient novel, 1984, called this phenomenon groupthink. It’s an apt term. Groupthink brought us such epic blunders as the Bay of Pigs invasion and New Coke.

Counteract groupthink in your company by facilitating the active consideration of alternate points of view. Pressure test a decision by uncovering what might go wrong with it. Insist on this. Don’t accept yes for an answer. Dialogue, discussion, and debate produce better decisions and even better outcomes.

The old paradigm of leadership sets you up to fail because all leaders ultimately face circumstances beyond their own knowledge and ability. Blindly following this paradigm, convinced that your job as a leader is to have all the answers, tumbles you ahead, quick to speak and slow to hear.

The three questions above, while not exhaustive, get you started using a new language of leadership for a new paradigm. One that’s quick to hear and slow to speak. One that lets go of the myth of the heroic leader and leverages the genius of the entire team. Leaders still lead in this paradigm, not as all-knowing, all-powerful potentates, but rather, as catalysts for a cause that brings out the best in others.

Isn’t it time to become this kind of leader?


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