Leadership Movies & Books

Brubaker: Leadership,Candor, andResults

Brubaker (1980, with Robert Redford): This movie about prison reform is based on a true story, and gives us a great opportunity to think about leadership, followership, candor, questioning the status quo, change, and achieving results.

Discussion questions: What were Brubaker’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader? What did he do best as a leader? What did he do to win the hearts and minds of his followers? What results did he get? Where did he not succeed?

I think we can all agree that Brubaker was extremely engaging as a leader, and that he created a powerful and loyal following. (Actually, Redford seems to be a bit of a wet noodle at times in this movie, but the character, Brubaker, does generate a strong following; he wins people over.) Can we say that Brubaker was therefore successful as a leader–is strong followership sufficient to make one a good leader? We must also ask about the value of his project: Is it just, meaningful, and important? Was Brubaker successful in his project—did he achieve his goal of prison reform? Finally, what do Brubaker’s successes and failures tell us about leadership, a leader’s role, and how we define success?

What is the difference between (i) sacrificing some troops in a particular battle, perhaps as a tactical decision, (ii) sacrificing your strategy, and (iii) sacrificing your principles?

What else could or should Brubaker have done? When is questioning the status quo, or “whistle blowing,” an act of disloyalty and when is it the right thing to do? How would you treat a whistle blower? How should your organization treat its whistle blowers?

Keep in mind that whistle blowing has its own set of ethics and etiquette; and that whistle blowing is a continuum that stretches from questioning the status quo, at one extreme, to snitching for the sake of self-promotion or even mutiny, at the other. At its best, whistle blowing is all about looking out for the best long term interests of the organization.

Questioning the status quo is often fiercely discouraged because it can put people on the defensive: (i) by calling into question systems and policies that are crafted and owned by specific individuals and (ii) by putting under the critical microscope people’s decisions, attitudes, and behaviours. People who feel they are under attack can behave irrationally—fight, flight, or freeze, rather than step back, reflect, learn, and adjust.

A sad fact is that whistle blowers are often fired—even when they are right. The tragic double-bind or catch 22 of whistle blowing is that the whistle blower is both trying to do the right thing for the organization and committing an act of disloyalty by questioning the decision or action of a more senior manager.

Does the risk of putting someone on the defensive or of being fired mean we should never blow the whistle, never question the status quo? It is a tough call when it is your neck on the line. But what are the risks of not acting? Integrity and courage in the face of fire is all about doing the right thing, doing what is in the best long term interests of the organization, even when it comes at your own expense. This “maverick” behavior comes with great responsibility: of having to go through the proper channels first, being tactful and respectful, taking the high road—and not shooting wildly from the hip.

What would it take to create a culture on your team where people are ready, willing, and able to question the status quo and to debate contrasting views openly, rigorously, and collaboratively? What would you have to do as a leader to make that part of your team’s culture?

Along these lines, you might consider reading these superb articles—and one DVD:

Argyris, Chris. “Good Communication that Blocks Learning,” Harvard Business Review (July-August 1994) and “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 1991).

Graham, Ginger L., “If You Want Honesty, Break Some Rules,” Harvard Business Review (April 2002): 42-47.

Harvey, Jerry B. The Abilene Paradox (Jossey-Bass 1996). [Available as a book (Jossey-Bass 1988) and as a DVD (2nd Edition, CRM Produced—watch it if you can.]

O’Toole, James and Warren Bennis, “What’s Needed Next: A Culture of Candor,” Harvard Business Review (June 2009), pp. 54-61.

I plan to write more on a culture of candor in the future.

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