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How John Wayne Stunted Leadership Development

by Kevin Eikenberry on October 16, 2013

leadership developmentJohn Wayne was one of the biggest film stars ever. And his legacy has been hindering leaders for a long time.

Unwittingly, in many of his movies, John Wayne “proves” that you can succeed alone. All you need is the biggest will, the most stamina, and the fastest gun.

John Wayne taught (well, perhaps reinforced) the myth of the single hero.

But the Duke’s world was a world of scripts and make-believe.

You lead in the real world.

The fact is that the only way for you to truly succeed as a leader is to bust that myth.

You can’t do it alone, not if you want to succeed at the highest levels. You must engage your team. You must let them in. You must challenge them. You must allow them to try (and fail).

You can’t do it all yourself; you don’t have enough time in your day.

You can’t do it all yourself; you don’t have every strength and all the experience required.

You can’t do it yourself; there isn’t a script and you aren’t in the movies.

You can’t do it all yourself; you aren’t John Wayne.

In other words: you can’t achieve your maximum potential until you get help and assistance from others.

Put another way, the only way to have great success as a leader is to delegate.

I’ve hinted at the first thing required – you must change your perspective and beliefs. The image of the self-made man or woman, solely leading their team and organization to victory is ridiculous. While you hold the “self-made” belief, you likely also believe that “two heads are better than one” and “the team can accomplish more than the individual.”  The second two beliefs, while requiring us to work with and get along with others, are more likely to lead to success.

Here are two other mindsets that will help you with delegation . . .

Share responsibility.  To delegate, you must share the responsibility for the outcome. Think about it this way. When do you get the most satisfaction from your work: when you are given and feel ownership for a task, project or outcome, or when you are watched and constantly being questioned?

Others feel the same way you do, so give them that opportunity. Give people a picture of success, help them see the big picture and get out of their way.

Allow for mistakes.  When people are learning, they will stumble and stub their toe. It happened to you and it will happen to them. If you want people’s best efforts, you have to allow space for errors and mistakes. When people understand the big picture and believe in where the group is going, the mistakes will be honest ones and can (and will) be corrected. Your job is to provide the safety net and to help make sure they learn from (and consequently, don’t repeat) the mistakes. If you want more productivity and engagement, this is what you must do.

Next week, I will take this a step further and talk about what your real role is, rather than doing all the work you should be delegating.  But for now, enjoy your favorite John Wayne movie – just don’t take the lessons to work.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Bernhardt October 18, 2013 at 10:24 am

Enjoyed the article, but would have to respectifully disagree with the premise. , I would point out that in many of the John Wayne films that I have enjoyed over the years, he invariably had a team of talented like-minded individuals around him that helped to achieve a common goal. Movies such as Operation Pacific, Rio Bravo, Chisum, illustrate a strong, determined leader to be sure, but one that had to have the help of a team to achieve the successful outcome. I think that it is rather the stereotype or “cartoon” of the Duke (as described above) that is the problem, not necessarily the total reality. While I can think of perhaps a much lesser number of his films that might fit the “lone hero” mold, I think that there are very clearly some examples of highly successful team leadership and goal achievement that exist as well. Thanks for an interesting entry that actually caused me to respond for first time ever!

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Kevin Eikenberry October 23, 2013 at 5:42 am

Matt – thanks for replying and for putting your context to the discussion! As Mike also commented there are certainly things we can learn from the characters John Wayne played. I guess while it is the movies, it is also like real life. Our strengths and weaknesses as a leader all show and we have opportunities to learn and growth from both of them, if we choose to.

Thanks so much for your perspective and for givig me reasons to watch a few more John Wayne movies.

Kevin :)

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Mike Henry Sr. October 18, 2013 at 4:12 pm

You’re giving my hero a bad rap. Nothing you said above is untrue. I am not disputing that the messages you picked up were conveyed. But I think your opinion is just not looking deep enough.

He made a ton of movies. For the last 20 years of his life, he had the same crew of people in most of his movies. He was extremely loyal. And in many of his best movies, he wasn’t alone, but we was the one to make a stand. He made a stand when no one else would. He basically stood for something and attracted others to the cause. Most of his movie characters and his “real life” character stood for something even if people disagreed with him, like during the Viet Nam War and even when his character had questionable morals as Rooster Cogburn. And he took responsibility for his actions and his opinions.

I also know even the “real” John Wayne was an image. He wasn’t probably close to the real Marion Morrison. None of us are perfect. But he wasn’t shy about who he protrayed. He did everything all the way. His leadership model fit a different time. But he appreciated people and was very loyal.

I agree with the points you make about leadership. You and I are regularly on the same page and I appreciate your stuff. You know that. But don’t mess with the Duke! :-)

Mike…

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Kevin Eikenberry October 23, 2013 at 5:40 am

Mike – Sorry to talk about your Hero! :) Your points about some of his movies are very well taken, and as I am sure you know, I was using him as a metaphor. Your deeper knowledge of his movie making team and your memory of some of the specific movies is intructive to me and any one else who reads this. For that thanks!

Your comments remind me that everyone has strengths and weaknesses too. Your points about the positive lessons learned from the Duke (and his real life too) are as valuable as my cautionary points.

Thanks again!

Kevin :)

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Darrell Fisher October 19, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Oh, come on! Blaming John Wayne, or anyone in the film industry for “stunting” leadership is laughable. Do you really believe that people are so weak-willed that they can’t simply watch a movie for enjoyment or relaxation without applying such “lessons” to real life? Anyone who does this isn’t a leader to begin with. As a leader, I’ll be skipping your next installment.

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Kevin Eikenberry October 23, 2013 at 5:36 am

Darrell – Thanks for your comments. You might be surprised to find that I agree with you. Of course we shouldn’t let a movie or a movie star influence our leadership performance or approach… and cultural influences do sneak into our psyche anyway. In the end my point was not about the Duke himself or even his movies as much as the stereotypical “self made person.” And that stereotype does get in the way of us leading as effectively as we could.

Lastly, while movies and TV can be a form a relaxation, I believe they can also be a source of learning and reflection for us – both in terms of what we might not want to emulate, but what we might want to as well.

Thanks so much for your comments.

Kevin :)

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Ray December 29, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Kevin, what a great post and right on target. The image of leadership of being tall, aggressive, lone-wolf white men has for too long dominated both popular culture and unfortunately recruiting executive talent. The truth is that image was mostly a myth and doesn’t serve us well today.

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