Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Leadership lessons from unusual places: Pulp Fiction

At last week's Government IT Symposium, I talked about leadership lessons from unusual places. I wanted to share another source for learning about leadership. Specifically, leading small group discussions.

Let's watch this brief clip from the movie Pulp Fiction. This is from the beginning of the movie when Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) meet with some business partners of their employer. It's a meeting over breakfast.



In the Symposium presentation, we examined this clip through a new lens. Don't look at it as "gangster meeting with thugs," but rather "manager meeting with business partners." What are some lessons you can take away from this scene? I think you can learn a few things about leading a small group discussion.

Find commonality. Note how Jules immediately makes a connection with others in the room. He is clearly an extrovert, and can find opportunities to make small talk. But you don't have to be an extrovert to do this. Follow Jules's example to make small talk, and put others at ease.

Lead with clarity. Early in the conversation, Jules asks a few clarifying questions to set context and make sure everyone is aware of the purpose for the discussion. "Do you know who we are?" and "You do remember your business partner, don't you?" serve as a kind of introduction and help people to get on the same page.

Observe cultural norms. I used to work in higher education, as campus CIO for a small university. I remember that a key part of our campus culture was based on food. It seemed everyone brought food to meetings. It was just something you did. So I started to bring food to meetings, too. This helped to fit the cultural norm. It also helped to smooth over difficult meetings. So if you're going into a meeting to discuss a difficult topic, and especially if that meeting is first-thing in the morning, bring some doughnuts or muffins. Having food can help put people at ease.

Get into character. Did you notice what Jules said to Vincent at the very beginning of the clip? "Let's get into character." A colleague of mine often says, "Leadership is a performance." Sometimes you need to assume the character traits you want others to see. Do you need others to see you as collected and calm? Observe your body language and what messages you send when you attend your next meeting. How you project yourself says a lot about you; use that. Another colleague of mine advises to pause for fifteen seconds before you walk into a meeting. This is especially important if you are a few minutes late for the meeting. Another few seconds won't make a difference, but how you appear in the meeting will. If you appear unnerved (because you are late to the meeting) that may change the tone of the discussion that follows. So take a few moments to "get into character" before you join the meeting.

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