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Bhaskar Chakravorti Headshot

And the Oscar for Leadership Goes to...

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I don't know about you, but I get my biggest and most concentrated dose of leadership lessons comes from going to the movies. And this year's movie crop has been nothing short of a bonanza. Oscar gave the nod to so many models of heroic leadership to pick from and adapt for our own use: the iconic American president with the upright gait and unforgettable face reproduced on monuments, mountains and currencies; the shadowy operative who favors anonymity and weaves a fabric of followers stretching from Langley, VA, through Hollywood, CA to Teheran, Iran, and returns to obscurity once the job is done; the boy on a boat with a single follower that can do little else but eat him. They all led. They engineered their followership to pull off seemingly impossible tasks. One led from the front, united a divided nation, fought a bloody war and was not averse to being just a little less upright to work with many stakeholders to get historic legislation passed. Another was an innovative entrepreneur, and harnessed resources that he brought together through intransigence, persistence and creativity. The third, literally, had a tiger by the tail; here was a lesson in leadership in extreme crisis with an extremely hostile constituency.

What I like about the movies is that the leadership biographies I get from them are free of moral, ethical or political clutter. Even the human frailties are brought to us by master storytellers, a Spielberg, an Affleck, an Ang Lee. In the digitally (or otherwise) enhanced narrative, even the foibles and faults contribute towards the endgame as the leader gets to goal. Unfortunately, outside the movie-house, we have to contend with the most spectacular of our leaders who inexplicably fail us in spectacular ways. We are left with no endgame narrative other than a messy mix of disappointment, shock and frustration.

The real world has not been kind to the leadership narrative. There appears to be a simultaneous crisis of political leadership around the democratic world. Businesses from High Finance to Big Oil appear to be led by managers either devoid of courage or caught with hands in the cookie jar with frightening regularity. Elsewhere, we read of errant sports superstars, or men of the cloth who purportedly speak to God but prey on their flock, or generals who hold firm on the battlefront and fall prey to temptation on the home front. As a professor, this is a period filled with many hazards. Our students crave lessons on leadership; but we seem to have got to a point where it is not safe to write an inspiring leadership biography or a teachable case study anymore until the subject is well in the past, or in the case of the boy with the tiger, a figment of magical realism.

Why is it that the "real" realism does not give us leaders we can really count on? Perhaps, the Oscar-worthy leadership formula suggests an answer. In essence, if you study the script, you notice a common thread: the leader is an individual who wins over a following and gets it to take action on a cause the followers do not believe in. This suggests that leaders have at least one trait in common. All leaders are part of and often are charged with leading within an institutional context. The leader breaks the institutional rules, challenges the orthodoxies that the institutions have congealed around and are either unafraid of the consequences of being cast out of the institution or when the context is boy + tiger + boat in middle of ocean, they realize they have no other choice.

This helps us understand why it is hard to find a parallel script for reliable leadership in the real world. If our appointed leaders are afraid of being cast out of the institutions that helped establish them, they will have one of two reactions: they will not challenge the rules or they will circumvent them under the radar. There is a leadership deficit among our politicians, not just in Washington, DC but in national capitals in democratic systems anywhere: the managers appointed to lead are worried about their constituency's reactions to their actions. So they do not act decisively and with conviction, even though it would be in the collective best interest to do so. Business managers, for their part, have been schooled to respect the Porter "five forces" and then some: suppliers, customers, rivals, entrants, substitutes, and the many stakeholders whose interests a manager must be mindful of -- from shareholders and employees to advocacy groups, complementors and regulators. Most business managers are taught not to challenge institutions against which they have no negotiating leverage. The result: they tow the institutional line, which everyone else does as well, resulting in incrementalism and an under-investment in breakthrough moves and innovations. The managers -- in politics or business -- who have a private endgame in mind sneak around the institutions and get caught engaging in criminal activity.

The superstars in sports, the clergy or the military are subject to a somewhat different dynamic. Their institutions are not as open to public scrutiny and are notoriously hierarchical. These institutions are accustomed to not asking and not telling on the higher-ups. So there is an inherent incentive for rule-breaking to take place and it takes a while for the rule-breaking to accumulate. But when the evidence leaks out, it comes as a shock because of the accumulation. This is why we should not be surprised when some of the most revered of heroes and leaders from hierarchical institutions turn out to have harbored a closet full of egregiously broken rules.

This is not to say that I tar all leaders with this brush; as a teacher, I just wish to play it safe. Today I take my cues from another Oscar: Oscar Pistorius overcame the harshest of physical adversities and reached the pinnacle of human physical achievement. In fact, I now make the automatic assumption that, like Pistorius, every real-world heroic leader may be privy to a secret. I don't damn them or judge them. I just don't rely on their biographies until they have been shrink-wrapped by the movies. This way, I am not surprised. This worked beautifully when I used Citizen Kane to teach entrepreneurial leadership in my class at Harvard. One day, I hope they will make the movie on Oscar Pistorius. Movie material doesn't get any better than his operatic life story. And, regardless of how his trial turns out, he led the field. And he broke some rules.
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Bhaskar Chakravorti is the Senior Associate Dean of International Business & Finance at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is founding Executive Director of Fletcher's Institute for Business in the Global Context. He has taught innovation and entrepreneurship as faculty member at Harvard Business School and Fletcher and was a leader of McKinsey's Innovation and Global Forces practices as a Partner based out of the Firm's Boston office. He is the author of the book, The Slow Pace of Fast Change. The Institute is dedicated to developing global leaders with contextual intelligence: http://fletcher.tufts.edu/MIB/Ten-Questions.