Leadership Lessons from Action Movies

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Everything I learned about team leadership I got from action movies. Specifically, movies like The Bourne trilogy with its dynamic teams of government agents and managers who efficiently track the plodding and bumbling Bourne. I’ve also drawn inspiration from the many roles of Tommy Lee Jones where he plays a government authority figure (actually I think it’s just the same character, repurposed for different plots, but that’s speculation).


So here are the lessons I take from these movies and apply in my daily work life:

  • End commands with “people”, as in “Let’s work this, people!”. The word “everyone” is far too wimpy. And the “let’s” shows that you are actually contributing, not just telling them what to do. This is Tommy Lee Jones’ favorite.
  • If you want to get your team’s attention for an inspirational speech, start it with “Listen up!”. This is even better combined with “people”, as in “Listen up, people!”. Pamela Landy in The Bourne Supremecy  abbreviates this to start off a great motivational talk: “Listen, people - do you have any idea who you’re dealing with? This is Jason Bourne. You are nine hours behind the toughest target you have ever tracked. Now I want everyone to sit down, strap in, and turn on all you’ve got. That would mean now.” Hoo-wee!
  • Stalk the room and bark orders while your team cowers at their stations. Hover over them, so that they work more quickly and efficiently. Everyone knows that typing speed goes up exponentially with proximity of an observer.
  • Divide tasks up and assign them to individuals so that they can’t collaborate. Furthermore, make them individually responsible and give them impossibly large tasks, but discourage them from collaborating. Pamela Landy again demonstrates this in The Bourne Supremacy where she instructs her team to “box” the problem out, dividing it up into chunks to be worked on separately.
  • If you want something done quickly, add the word “stat” at the end of the request. As in, “Get me those files, stat!” No-one knows what it means, except it’s vaguely medical and is just a fancy word for “now”. But it gets respect and action, without any eye-rolling.
  • Never praise your team, individually or collectively. And in fact it’s much more effective to take credit for their work
  • Berate and swear at team-members in front of their co-workers if they do something wrong (or even if they don’t). It’s a proven motivational technique.
  • If your team screws up, throw them under the bus to management
  • Stereotypically nerdy workers with bad hair, taped-together wireframe glasses, and untucked shirts can be driven to work long hours while they write obscure software that only they understand. The fact that only they understand it should mean they are highly valuable to you and would have lots of latitude for negotiation, but in all cases they fear for their jobs, possibly because they will be deported back to the foreign country they often seem to come from, where their work is unappreciated. (A great example is Russian programmer Boris Grishenko in Goldeneye, in one of Alan Cumming’s more nuanced roles.)
  • If all else fails and your team can’t work the problem, computers and networks of remote cameras, databases (encrypted with 4-letter easily-guessed passwords) can be relied on to miraculously deliver a solution. (It happens on CSI every week, and in all 18 of the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movies.)

Anyone else have any good leadership advice they’ve found from movies and TV?