Six Leadership Lessons from Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk director/writer/producer Christopher Nolan (Batman Trilogy, Interstellar, Inception) didn’t say these lessons out loud. Always pay more attention to what a leader does than says. I gathered this advice for leaders from watching the expansive special features on the Dunkirk DVD set.

1.     Keeping doing the parts of the job you love

Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema are everywhere in the scenes of the filming taking place. It looks like the $100 million movie that two boys filmed. Leaders often move up through the ranks in a company. They’ve had a lot of jobs. But when they get to the top, they’ve only got one job. Don’t forget the part of the work you love to do. And spend time doing it. Don’t let go of something that grounds you to the work and your passion.

2.     Put your imprint on it

Nolan likes using real film, not digital. He wanted natural lighting. He wanted IMAX. He wrote the story. And he was completely hands-on in every aspect. One of the actors tells how Nolan looked him over on the first day of shooting and told him the boots of his laces were tied incorrectly. British soldiers in WWII tied them differently.

3.     Make it real

Minimal CGI, no green screen. No patina of colors . The film wasn’t even scanned digitally to add stuff in later.

He used real ships, real planes from WWII where possible. And he used real kids (18-21 years old) as lead actors. There were no 40-year old infantrymen running around. When the bombs went off on the beach, those kids didn’t need to act, they were scared.

And the actors that portrayed pilots were actually up in the air while they were in the cockpit. A real pilot was in the section behind them on the plane actually flying it.

4.     Go first

Don’t make any of your people do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself. Nolan was first in line to go up in those antique planes, first in the water, first to jump off of something, all of it. Go first and you’ve captured hearts and minds.

5.     Decide what you want to do…then figure out if it’s impossible or not

Nolan wanted to film in IMAX format and he wanted the action handheld. AND he wanted to film on the wings of the planes in the air. The IMAX format cameras are over 50 pounds, not exactly handheld-worthy. And they’d never been brought up in the air the way they used them. Like Roger Bannister and the 4-minute mile we now know these things can be done.

6.     Listen to and lead with the passion you were born with

Nolan grew up with this mythology – the most inspiring retreat in modern warfare. He’s lived with this story since he was a boy. And in the special features he’s everywhere – up in the air in an old Spitfire plane, in the water, jumping off a ‘sinking’ ship, everywhere. His passion came to life. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema reminded me of two excited boys running around in charge of a movie that cost $100 million to make.

Christopher Nolan won his first Oscar for Best Director for Dunkirk. He earned it by leading with passion.

How will you lead the change you want to make today?

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How to Make an Omelette


We can read about it, talk about it, think about it.

But at one point, the preparation gets in the way of getting stuff done. Walt Whitman counseled, “let the book on the shelf unopen’d.” At one point we need to do it.

Speaking another language, exercising, falling in love, traveling, starting a business, writing a book – these only happen if we stop preparing and actually do them.

You can read about cooking an omelet for weeks. But if you’re hungry, you’re going to have to break some eggs.

Learn more: Team Collaboration Quest - Teams complete a customized series of challenges through collaboration and communication.

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Know yourself, Then Know Your Audience


It’s as if over 90% of your vision were obstructed. Driving to high school on icy mornings, that’s what my windshield looked like.

Whatever your MBTI preference is, it’s probably your default mode of trying to influence others. The golden rule, right?

But this only works if the others have the same function preference as you.

There are 16 possible MBTI preference combinations. If you don’t think of other people and their preferences, your influencing attempts have a 6.25% chance of landing.

That’s not going to cut it. It’s as if over 90% of your vision were obstructed while driving. Even though I made it safely (somehow) to school with such a small view, I’m smarter now. I’m not going to repeat that mistake again. I’m going to take the time to see more out of my windshield.

And now you’re smarter too. Take the time and get a clear view of the people you’re trying to influence.

Learn more: MBTI Team Quest - Discover and leverage the various ways your people make decisions, strategize and access information, using this organizational standard. Team members begin to recognize the strengths that other types bring to the team, and the power that comes from multiple types working together.

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Twelve play lessons from skiing


It was dark and 14 degrees out when I left home. I arrived at the mountain in time for the 8 AM chair lift opening. The temperature had dropped 20 degrees thanks to the elevation to -4 degrees, sunny, cold and windy. I skied the full day, from 8 AM to chair lift close at 4 PM, with only two quick food breaks.

I rarely felt warm enough, and after the first two runs, my thighs were screaming, “it’s been two years since you’ve done this!” But I happily persisted, loving the freedom and challenge that this particular form of play presents.

The next day I woke up and could hardly move, muscles I forgot existed in my legs and back complaining loudly. Yes, it was totally worth it.

Contrast this to working out in a gym. 30 minutes on a treadmill or working those same legs and I’m done. Bored, tired, ready to do something else. Or put off coming back to do this again.

What’s the difference? Play. The ‘working out’ aspect was secondary to engaging in something fully, something challenging and interesting. There was a clear container to play in – a defined playing field with specific boundaries. There was just one thing to get done.

But mostly, it was a game. It was fun.

The power of play got me farther – by far – than a task-oriented gym approach. And the power of play gets us much farther when we can play the work, not just get it done. Are we getting happily lost in the work or just feeling lost? If it’s the latter, reorganize the work to incorporate:

  • Do something. Don’t just prepare. Take action, even if you don’t feel ready.
  • Full engagement in one thing a day (or at least one thing at a time)
  • Born to move. Incorporate nature and movement somehow. We were born to move. For example, kick start today’s work-game with a walk outside.
  • Feel the fun. Something interests you, something captures you. Notice it and let it in.
  • Clear boundaries – nothing interferes with the game. Real freedom is within boundaries. When you’re out of bounds stop.
  • Test the boundaries. For example, few skiing pleasures compare to glade skiing.
  • Call time-outs. If you want to “level up”, you need to create the levels. And you do that by placing pauses in the action – to recharge and to learn.
  • Learn and improve. Every action gives us feedback that we either ignore or explore. Note: It’s easier to do this during time-outs.
  • Change it up. When feedback tells us something isn’t working, listen and try something new.
  • When the enthusiasm has waned, the game is over…for now. You’ll be back. (A truly hard one for most of us – we culturally have a hard trusting waning enthusiasm.)
  • Peak fun. This is means stopping when maximum fun has just been had and the long downward slope (pun intended) has begun. Retire at the peak. Leave them wanting more.
  • When you’re done playing the game you’re done. Don’t look back in regret (however afterglow is allowed) and of course don’t keep going.

How can you ski your work instead of weight-lift your work today?

How will you play the work today?

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“We’re Too Busy to…” (Quest story)


Jayne told me the story of a team she once facilitated to help communicate more effectively. The leader of the team told her and his team a laundry list of things this team was too busy to do:

•    We’re too busy to have meetings with agendas
•    We’re too busy to touch base with people how projects are going
•    We’re too busy to think about communication preferences

This leader was also swamped: “I get 200 emails a day from the team telling me status updates.”

What about his team? Here’s what they had to say:

•    He sends emails barking orders that repeatedly say ‘get it done, get it done, get it done’.
•    We’re successful but we hate each other.

This was a team with swagger. All millenials (including the leader), they said to Jayne at the beginning, “You better have extra things for us to do because we’re going to be better and faster than any team you’ve ever worked with.” And they meant it.

The first team building activity they tried they leaped into action…or more specifically the leader leaped into action. “Here’s what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.” And off they went, implementing his plan…at least at the start.

The result? Jayne said it was amazing to see a team get something so wrong, so early in the game and stick with it. The plan pretty quickly got thrown out the window – not consciously, it just kind of happened that way – and they rushed headlong down a dead end, getting more and more frustrated. Then they looked at Jayne as if she had betrayed them somehow by giving them a challenge that they were terrible at.

This story is sad and it’s funny in a schadenfreude kind of way. “Hey, at least we’re not that team!”

And it may hit a little too close to home. Does this sound like a leader you know? Are you this leader? Are you on this team? We all share some of these characteristics when we’re under stress.

Bad teams and bad leaders don’t lack energy or personal investment. What they lack is a way to work smarter, not harder. They get the job done operating in a pretty constant emotional state of “We’re successful but we hate one another.”

You’re busy, too busy really. I know, I am too.

But if you’re reading this – busy as you are – you’re at least open to answering three questions:

1.    What kind of team will you be on today?
2.    How will you lead?
3.    What will you do today…that you’re too busy to do?

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Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned By Watching Commercials


If you’ve ever watched a car or a beer commercial and wondered, “what the heck do these dancers/guys in bear suits/soccer moms/young gorgeous people having a great time at the beach have to do with the actual product?” the advertisers are probably aiming at your feeling function. They’re addressing the emotional side of buying a product and try to attach positive ‘feeling’ experiences to their product.

If you see a commercial with technical advantages listed or an actor playing a medical doctor telling you that in medical tests two out of three people preferred pink medicated tissues over blue non-medicated ones, the advertisers are appealing to your thinking function.

This is reflected in politics, especially on the national level. While the actual debates and political commentary news shows appeal to the thinking function, the overall image of a candidate is tailored to appeal to the feeling function of the average voter. Statistically, more people will be swayed by appeals to the feeling function.

You need to address both MBTI functions – thinking and feeling – but spend more time on the feeling. The most persuasive arguments are ones that appeal to both the heart and the head – they appeal to the feeling side first but also have the data to back it up.

Learn more: MBTI Team Quest - Discover and leverage the various ways your people make decisions, strategize and access information, using this organizational standard. Team members begin to recognize the strengths that other types bring to the team, and the power that comes from multiple types working together.

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Every Journey Is a Hero’s Journey


I recently returned from two weeks ‘out of the office’ in the Dominican Republic. It was…really out of the office – a real journey and a real break. My computer stayed home and my phone went into airplane mode until I was back in the states.

Every journey can be a hero’s journey. You move into the unknown, get something, bring it back home to your tribe. Carl Jung said, “I feel it is the duty of one who goes his own way to inform society of what he finds on his journey of discovery.”

You’re the tribe I’m part of. You’re my society. By telling you my insights my little trip becomes a hero’s journey. Here are three gifts I’d like to share with you.

Perspective: When I moved away from the jittery speed of daily email, news, social media, public controversies, much of what we think as important looked pretty meaningless to me. Few things matter in the world, but they really matter. And the daily grind can obscure the important stuff.

Appreciation: On getting back to the states I noticed how wonderful it was to run the tap and drink the water without purifying it with a backpacker’s water pump. Visiting a supermarket with ample fresh vegetables and fruit made my heart sing. The English language, the organization, the familiarity all were appreciated. Things that were unnoticed or that annoyed me were seen in a fresh way

Return to the core: I don’t need much to make me happy and fulfilled. And those things have remained the same for almost 50 years. A lot of the daily grind I choose has nothing to do with my core delights. When I do return to the core, I’m at peace in a way that is both familiar and too rare.

You can make your work day, your weekend, anything a hero’s journey. You don’t even need an articulated quest. All it takes is to step into the unknown for even a moment. And then tell us about what you learned.

Here’s to your hero’s journey this month, this week, this hour, this life.

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Squirrels don’t do daylight savings time


I set the clocks forward.

And I looked out the window at a squirrel chasing another squirrel in the snow. And the birds at the feeder. And the chipmunks that just came out of hibernation, also running over the snow.

They are on the same clock they were yesterday, and the same clock that they will be on tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that.

They don’t do clock time. They do energy time. And ‘earth around the sun’ time.

So do we, really. Clock time allows us to be in agreement with each other about things that we deem important. But we are animals too.

And our primary time is measured in energy, not with the clock.

Live by your ‘energy time’. Do the most important things that you are most passionate about during the time of day where you have the most energy.

And don’t make any important decisions or try to do anything important in your ebb tide of energy in your day.

Long before we humans had clocks, we had energy. If you want to live your passion today follow your daylight energy time.

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Influence Using Feeling


The big news: More people prefer the MBTI function of feeling than thinking when making decisions. So purely ‘rational’ arguments are going to be effective less than half the time.

Focus more on influencing decisions by appealing to people’s feeling function. Answer these questions to include the feeling function:

  • How will this benefit people and their needs?
  • How will this lead to more harmony, cooperation and collaboration?
  • Does this take into account people’s values?
  • What are the positives of this for the people involved?
  • Will this make the work environment more supportive and nurturing?
  • Will anyone be hurt?

Also important: Do your homework and have the facts to back up your appeal. But remember, the facts are your backup, not your first option. The exception to this is when you know that your audience primarily prefers the thinking function. Then you can just go with the facts.

Learn more: MBTI Team Quest - Discover and leverage the various ways your people make decisions, strategize and access information, using this organizational standard. Team members begin to recognize the strengths that other types bring to the team, and the power that comes from multiple types working together.

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Quest Story: Skipping in Time by Rufus Collinson


I live on a busy city street corner in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Every evening, I like to sit on my stoop and watch the stream of humanity pass by – pedestrians, drivers and passengers. One cold night, I was nestled into my usual perch, watching and dreaming.

Across the street, a teenaged boy suddenly grabbed the hand of his giggling girlfriend and began skipping down the sidewalk. They were in perfect skipping synchronization.

Within two minutes, I felt as though I was watching a scene from a movie, probably a foreign film. A mother and daughter behind the skipping couple reached for one another’s hands and began skipping too. Two small boys on my side of the street, giggled and imitated the skippers across the way. Soon enough, every configuration of twos imaginable were holding hands and skipping toward the boulevard around the corner. A few feet from me, an elderly man skipped in place as his wife lifted her walker up and down in time with the rhythm of the crowd.

I leapt up from the stoop and joined the throng, amazed by the transformative power of one exuberant action. We skipped together until we reached the boulevard above the harbor. There was a tiny moment of silence and then, each by each, we took one another into our arms and hugged. I walked home slowly, immersed in the blessing. I still am.

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