14) The BackPage: Lessons in Leadership from the Movie, “Argo”

ArgoOK, before I go any farther, I have to say — the language in this movie is horrific. On the one hand, it’s what I hear 3 times a week when I go play soccer with a couple of dozen international friends of mine from all over the world. They cuss, swear, and utter some of the worst words I’ve ever heard. It’s horrible. That’s what this movie sounds like in certain segments. Well… LOTS of segments. Don’t take your family to this movie. Don’t rent it for anyone else on Redbox until you’ve watched it yourself. But if you play soccer with the same guys I do, these words won’t be new. You just won’t like them. Honest. (Am I getting my point across?)

Having said all that, if you can get hold of an EDITED copy of this movie… like … maybe something they show on an airline?… then there are indeed some redeeming values. The story is all about a cooperative effort between Canada and our own CIA to free six U.S. State Department employees who escaped the Iranian embassy just moments before it was stormed by mobs of irate Iranians on Nov. 4, 1979. The rest of the drama describes the CIA’s attempt to free them. The title of the movie, “Argo,” gets its name, of all things, from a movie WITHIN the movie — because the lead CIA operative, Tony Mendez, comes up with a zany idea [which echoed the real life events of 1980] of trying to exfiltrate the 6 hostages by convincing the Iranian government that they’re scouting the country for a movie set — a movie entitled, “Argo.” If you want the complete plot-spoiling description [warning: Don’t read this until you’ve watched the movie], visit

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argo_%282012_film%29

OK, so now the scene is set. And now we ask about the redeeming values. If you can get past all the obscenities, it seems to me thatArgo training there are several lessons in leadership found within Affleck’s portrayal of Tony Mendez and the dynamics of the entire drama. I’d like to propose four lessons, then ask you, the Brigada audience, what further lessons YOU can find in Argo.

*** Leadership, at the end of the day, is believing so strongly in an idea — a big idea — that you’re even prepared to die for it if you have to. Once you reach that level, you can truly rise to heroic status. Anything less than that and you’ll probably be relegated to a medium performance, at best. Affleck’s portrayal of Tony Mendez has received broad acclaim partly because Mendez was indeed a leader willing to die for his cause. (Note: This Mendez guy is the real deal. Argo got a few things wrong, but MANY things it got right — and Mendez is one of them. One of the reasons the movie works is that Affleck helps us see that this guy labored over his integrity: In the movie version of the story, he realized that he had ‘outed’ these six hostages. He HAD to carry through with the rescue now. So… the question we have to ask ourselves as leaders is this: Are we willing to give our LIVES for the cause. I don’t mean — are we willing to leave our wives and children (we should be willing to take them with us). I mean… are we so passionate that this ’cause’ is more than a job. Is it a dream to which we’ll commit ALL of ourselves.

*** Secondly, there will be times, as leaders, that we will have to be so sure of our cause that we have to articulate it even when others believe it’s a dying cause. And part of the MAGIC of leadership is effectively convincing others that the cause is worth living for… and that it will succeed. My buddies and I have several friends who have  said it this way: You’ll know a leader because there will be people following her — or him. Affleck’s depiction of this in the movie is spectacular. In the movie version of the story, [plot-spoiler] the CIA calls off the rescue all together. Affleck’s character at first seems to relent and obey the order. But in a long and lonely night, he inwardly battles through the inner conflict: Does he follow through with his personal convictions even though it risks certain death, being fired and released when he returned (especially if he fails), and the possibility of being made a complete fool if his headquarters doesn’t reconfirm the airline tickets, for example. The upshot for you and me, as leaders: Can we pick our battles? Can we grow the intuition to know when to campaign for follow-through, and when to let go? Can we sort out when to stand up for what we believe and when to walk away. Those decisions, little by little on a daily basis, help shape the successes, or the failures, of us all.

Argo-the_movie*** Third, can we as leaders keep secrets? Mendez pulled all this off in 1980 — but then he couldn’t tell a soul. He couldn’t even tell his WIFE! It wasn’t until the whole thing was declassified in 1997 that the story could finally come out. Can we muster that kind of confidence and humility? “Loose lips” not only “sink ships,” as the old WWII poster says, they also can sink churches and mission agencies too.

*** Fourth, in the movie version, what did it take for Mendez to convince all six hostages to play along — especially the character, “Joe Stafford,” who said, in the movie version, ” You really believe your little story’s gonna make a difference when there’s a gun to our heads?” Tony Mendez replied, in the movie, “I think my story’s the only thing between you and a gun to your head.” [plot spoiler] 48 hours later, as they attempt to board the plane, Joe Stafford steps up to the plate and uses his language skill to tell the story of the movie to the guards, complete with story boards and sound effects. Thanks to his willingness to join the team, they make it through the gate. Our task as leaders is no different. We have to persuade those who aren’t on board either to get on board or to get off the ship. No small task. It takes constant vigilance. But if we’re successful, some of the very people who didn’t want to be involved might mean the difference between success and failure.

Now what about you? What lessons do YOU see in Argo? What did YOU learn about leadership, followership, and mobilization. Just click “Comment” below the online version of this item. Thanks in advance for your thoughts. And remember, please beware the bad language in the movie.

Doug

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