The Power Of One -- Leadership Lessons Learned From Hidden Figures

01/10/2017 02:23 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2017

I had an opportunity to see Hidden Figures, the incredible untold story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three brilliant African-American women working at NASA. It was an inspiring story that brought me to tears, made me laugh, but most of all made me think. I always look for lessons in fiction and in reality. The movie is based on real-life heroism of the African American women human computers who worked behind the scenes to launch the first American into space. There was a plethora of lessons to be learned from this movie, but the one message that resonated with me most was, “It only takes one.”

Katherine Johnson was not a leader by position or title, but she was an influential leader nonetheless. She was willing to be the one. Dorothy Vaughn was acting in a leadership position though not recognized by title or position…or pay. She was willing to be the one. Mary Jackson did not wait on the leaders to allow her to lead, but claim her place among them. She was willing to be the one. Al Harrison, a leader in position and title, had to courage to lead where no one else would. He was willing to be the one.

At some point in history, it only takes one. It only takes one to be the voice, the genius, the pioneer, the advocate, the leader…the one who changes history. One is a powerful number. It is the catalyst that produces an addition, then a multiplication, and creates a new math. Watching the courageous brilliance of the story of the women featured in the movie, I learned 8 power lessons about leadership.

1. A Leader’s Job Is to Find the One Genius

A critical point in the film is when Al Harrison turns to the fictional character, Paul Stafford, and tells him that his job is to find the one genius who can help them find the answers they seek. He says this and they turn to watch Katherine Johnson do her mathematical magic on the chalkboard. As a leader, the most important job is to find the genius in your team and allow the genius to do its thing. Many times, leaders get so caught up in their own egos, personal agendas, and insecurities that they hurt themselves by restricting the breadth of talent on their team. This shows up in keeping important assignments to themselves or assigning challenging work to the “same ole folks” while leaving great talent twiddling their thumbs. Recognizing the genius in the people you lead makes you a genius yourself! One the most asinine and self-defeating things that you can do as a leader is to suppress the genius in your team. Even if you are not altruistic, be strategic and tap into the great talent that will not only help you to achieve your goals, but expand your capacity. Allowing your team to operate fully in their gifts, talents, and genius, allows their genius to work to your advantage.

2. A Leader Must Be the One Voice that Says What Needs to Be Said

One of the many poignant scenes in the movie is when Al Harrison notices Katherine Johnson is not at her desk and complains how often that occurs. He begins a tirade about her lack of work ethic when she returns soaking wet after having run to the other side of the campus in the rain…in high heels…in a skirt…carrying her files…just so she could use the colored restroom. Rather than cower to his barking, she stands up and tells him about the inconveniences of having to run a country mile just to relieve herself and many other injustices she endured just so she could do her work. While it often happens at a great risk, standing up for yourself often inspires others to do the same. Leaders must be the one to have the courage to speak up about injustice when they see it.

3. A Leader Must Be the One Who Reminds the Boss to Act Like the Boss

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Katherine Johnson challenges Al Harrison to buck protocol and allow her to attend the security briefing so that she can get the critical changes that impact her work in real time. When she asks Paul Stafford to attend, she was told that there is no protocol for a woman to attend the meeting. She knows that her attendance is crucial to the mission, so she goes straight to Al Harrison for permission. Initially, he is reluctant to break tradition and she boldly tells him that he has the authority to change if he is courageous enough to use his influence to make the change. She could have been fired on the spot. But she recognized that the risk to the mission—and the literal safety of human life—depended on her advocating for change. Being the one to buck authority takes courage of great testicular fortitude, but someone has to be the One to do it.

4. A Leader Must Be the One Who Acts Like the Boss When They Are the Boss

Sometimes you need to speak up to keep another leader focused on the importance of the mission. Other times, you need to speak to yourself and remind you that you are a leader! Quit playing small. Don’t relegate yourself to the back of the room when you belong at the front. Don’t relegate yourself to the side chairs when you belong at the table. Don’t relegate your voice to background noise when your voice should be heard clearly. You lead from where you are. Leadership emanates from using your influence to affect change. It is irrelevant of whether you hold a title or not. When you have the ability to lead, you need to step up and lead even when are being told that you don’t belong. Remind yourself that you do belong. And then act like it! Be the one because you are the One.

5. A Leader Must Be the One to Advocate for Others

Dorothy Vaughn was a great advocate. She was a great leader. She stood up for herself and stood up for the team she led. She stepped up to lead when the supervisor position was vacant, yet she had never been officially promoted nor given a pay raise to reflect the added responsibility. She confronted her supervisor about this inequity and was summarily dismissed on numerous occasions. When she was finally given the opportunity for a promotion, she refused to take it unless her entire team could come along. Rather than advocating for her promotion in isolation, she advocated for the entire department to be able to fill the needs of programming the new IBM computer. Instead of being a powerhouse of one, she built a powerful alliance that created greater opportunity for her AND her team. She was the One who recognized that helping others to succeed took nothing away from her, but added to her power to create change. But she had to create the opportunity first!

6. A Leader Does Not Wait for Opportunity to be Given but Creates Opportunity

Dorothy Vaughn was not one to sit around and wait for whatever was going to be thrown her way. She was inquisitive and stayed one step ahead of change. She learned as much as she could about the new technology that could replace the mathematical geniuses—human computers who did complex calculations with brain and pencil—and put them out of a job. She had the vision to see that although the computer may replace the humans, the computer still needed to be programmed by humans. She not only taught herself how to code the new computer but taught her entire team. She stood in the gap for her team and made sure they would not be left behind. It would have so easy for her to teach herself the code and chuck the deuce to the team. But she recognized that she had to be the One who would create opportunity for herself and others rather than lamenting the inevitable change. As a leader, your true legacy in how many opportunities you create for others not what you create for yourself.

7. Leaders Must Be Willing to Be First when Everyone Wants to Put You Last

Mary Jackson was a feisty woman. I loved her defiant spirit! She wanted to be an engineer. She was smart enough and had the credentials to be one…until the department added a qualification that could only be met by attending classes at the all-white high school. Even though this was post-Brown v. Board of Education, Virginia had yet to desegregate its schools. Mary faced the choice of being denied or being the One. She chose to challenge the system and be the first. She used the recognition of going down in history as the lure to convince the judge to grant her petition to attend the high school. She appealed to his humanity to show how much they were more alike than they were different. She was willing to be the first so that others could be in the number. Rather than waiting on opportunity to come to her, she chose to meet opportunity head on. Waiting is not a prosperity strategy. Good things don’t come to those who wait, but to the One who negotiates, creates, and advocates.

8. Leaders Know When They Can Act Alone and When They Must Create Alliances with Those Who Can Create Opportunity

Although Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson were great leaders, they could not create greatness by themselves. They realized that they had to appeal to the ones who had the power. They did not merely ask for more because they deserved it, but they showed how giving them opportunity was beneficial and valuable to others. People who are in power typically do not want to share power. It is human nature. They will only do so when it is to their advantage. Ultimately, these women used their influence to inspire those in power to do something truly powerful. They were resilient and tenacious in convincing those in power to be courageous to lead when others would not.

So not only was Hidden Figures an awesome film, it was a great leadership lesson. There are certainly others that I did not capture here. The movie may have been about mathematical geniuses, but it really was about Bosses! Katherine Johnson showed up to be the one genius, the one voice, and the one to remind the boss to be the boss. Dorothy Vaughn showed up to be the boss who brings others with her AND get to be the boss. Mary Jackson showed us how to stand up and claim the right to be a boss. Even Al Harrison showed us how to be the boss and do what no one else will.

It only takes one! It only takes one to see the genius in those you lead and give them the freedom to create greater opportunity for all It only takes one to stand up and advocate for others when it is unpopular or seemingly unwise to do so. It only takes one to remind the boss to be the boss! It only takes one to remind yourself to step up and lead from where you are! It only takes one to bring others along with you because you know are more powerful when you have an alliance of others who believe in what you believe than when you act individually. It only takes one to stand up and claim the right to pursue the opportunities you deserve rather than waiting around for “your day to come.” There is a lot of power in one!

Being the One is not easy. Being a great leader comes with its own set of challenges. You’ll get your feelings hurt. You’ll be overwhelmed at times. You’ll want to quit. You’ll have to run long distances in the rain in high heels and a skirt holding all your files to be able to do what you need to do. But you can do it. The women behind the story depicted in Hidden Figures showed us all the power of One.

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