Cowboy movies make great teaching tools because the characters and themes resonate with a modern audience. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert compares an iconic character arc from a famous John Wayne cowboy movie to a modern management problem and considers what we can learn from both stories.
I’ve been referencing books and films in my column titles for nine months now in preparation for my newest book Lost Allusions, due to appear on Amazon sometime later this month. As I was finishing the manuscript, it struck me that I’ve recently started favouring cowboy stories. My last three columns were all named after famous Westerns, and the notes that I’ve assembled for my next six column drafts are all tied to famous Westerns as well. Part of that can be probably attributed by the fact that I’m a Texan – even more so to the fact that I chose to live in laconic Fort Worth instead of a trendy city like Austin or Dallas. Out here, seeing a person wear dusty jeans and old cowboy boots to work in a glass high-rise is perfectly normal.
Another reason could be the nature of the stories themselves. Cowboy stories aren’t like many other historical romances and adventure yarns; the setting didn’t happen so long ago that we have to guess at how people like the characters lived. We still have vaqueros ranching just like their grandparents did. We have books, audio recordings, videos and first-hand accounts of life in the industry from folks who were active cowboys back in the early 20th century. Heck, people here still ride horses, carry revolvers, wear big hats, rustle cows and have all sorts of personal drama – which is why Western stories resonate so well: they’re stories about people that we recognize and can still relate to. The characters may not have modern conveniences, but their motivations, thought processes, and actions all make sense to us. A great Western story is just a story with most of the modern frippery stripped away so that the reader or viewer can pay closer attention to the plot. 
A great example of this principle is one of the greatest American Western movies of all time: John Ford’s classic 1939 cowboy movie Stagecoach. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you add it to your queue. It’s considered one of the greatest cowboy movies ever, holds a 100 per cent rating over on Rotten Tomatoes, and appears on every ‘top #’ list of Western movies I’ve read. It’s also the film that made young John Wayne a Hollywood star.
More importantly for our purposes, Stagecoach can be a great tool for talking about human behaviour and group dynamics. If you haven’t seen it, the movie is pretty straightforward: nine unremarkable and ordinary strangers decide individually to travel on a stagecoach from a town in Arizona to a town in New Mexico. Each traveler has his or her own motivations, fears, grudges and issues to contend with. Then drama happens, and the characters have to deal with it together.
That’s pretty much the same setup that we’d use for any discussion about workplace behaviour and conflict: a bunch of unremarkable and ordinary strangers decide individually to accept offers of employment with a company and get assigned to a workgroup. Each employee has his or her own motivations, fears, grudges and issues to contend with. Then drama happens, and the employees have to deal with it together.
As a practical example: the subplot regarding ‘Ringo Kid’ in Stagecoach is a good examination of anger as a motivator and how it can both help and hinders a worker. We learn early on in the movie that Wayne’s character is a fugitive from justice, and that he’s hell-bent on taking vengeance against the people who murdered his family. This deep hurt gives the Kid strong motivation to (a) get to a place and (b) accomplish a difficult deed. Along the way, the character interacts with the other travelers, and takes a living to some and a dislike to others (as one does). At least one other character has a profound transformative effect on the Kid, causing him to change how he goes about his quest. There are other subplots and character arcs happening, but I want to focus on just this one.
Wayne’s character is motivated by the outset by exceptional rage. We learn that he’s been deeply wronged, and that he’s been frustrated attempting to get justice. Given the intensity of the sadness and wrath churning inside of him, it’s surprising that the man has much control over his temper. It would be easy to understand him venting his fury on random people over the slightest provocation – or for no reason at all. Without giving anything away, that’s doesn’t happen. The Kid doesn’t displace his hate onto others; he stays focused on achieving his goal without letting it spill over onto innocent people (much). Credit for this is shared between the Kid himself, the marshal that takes him into custody, and the ‘soiled dove’ passenger that causes the Kid to reevaluate his personal priorities and his relationships with other people.
In that light, I’d like to look at a contemporary example of John Wayne’s Ringo Kid and how that sort of wronged, angry character manifests in real life by introducing a friend of mine that I’ll call Malcolm.  Malcolm and I served in the military together. He had jumped from one branch of the military to another just like I had. We had far more in common – culturally, educationally and experientially – than either of us had with any other squaddies. We formed a strong bond very early on and stayed friends long after we both retired.
Malcolm had been accepted into the unit as a personnelist and had been tucked away in HR’s racial complaints office – a assignment widely considered to be either a developmental billet for young officers (which he was not) or a ‘parking place’ for unwanted detritus (which he seemed to be). He was bound and determined not to let the trivial role hold him back. He wanted to contribute.
Shortly after he joined the unit, Malcolm went to the senior commander and asked for a chance to transfer into the flying arm. Malcolm had been an Army aviator for half of his career. He was already rated on single and multi-engine airplane and on all sorts of helicopters. He’d even served as an attack helicopter squadron commander overseas. He was far more qualified to serve with the fliers than the young university graduates that the recruiters were constantly bringing in. It should have been an easy process; just get him rated on the new airplane type, and put him to work.
There were just two tiny problems. The first problem was assumed to be the defining impediment to his career prospects in the unit: specifically, Malcolm was black. That’s not supposed to matter in a military career. The military is supposed to function as a meritocracy, operated on dedication to a higher cause. Unfortunately, ‘should’ doesn’t always win the day. The military is made up of people, and people can be flawed, vain, selfish, shortsighted and sometimes bigoted as hell.
The corner office told Malcolm ‘no’, he wouldn’t be allowed to fly with them. First, they claimed that he was too old. Malcolm showed them the regulation that proved them wrong. Then they told him that he didn’t fly the right kind of airplanes. Malcolm showed them his commercial pilot’s license for the ‘right’ type. Then they told him that they didn’t have any available positions. Malcolm showed them the roster that showed three open vacancies. This continued for years. The powers that be stonewalled Malcolm at every turn. They kept him confined to his little sinecure for over a decade, bound and determined to keep him emasculated, ineffective and ignored. He presence would be tolerated, but only if he stayed in his room and didn’t cause a fuss.
Malcolm had every right to be angry over how he was treated, and he definitely was angry. Lord knows I heard an earful from him about it whenever we got together. Malcolm also had every right to violently rage against the people who were illegally, administratively and morally oppressing him. Only… he didn’t. Ever.
To be clear, Malcolm was furious. He knew – as did everyone else in the building – that he was being denied fair treatment. It was assumed that this was happening strictly because of his race. While that definitely played a part, I don’t think that it was the whole story. I said that Malcolm had two problems and I suspect that it was actually his second problem that kept him perpetually on the outs with the head office. Specifically, the powers that be all seemed to be afraid of him: Malcolm wasn’t part of the Good Old Boys’ ClubSM that really ran things behind the scenes. Malcolm wasn’t willing to compromise his own professional ethics, and he wasn’t afraid to call another man out over an ethical failing. He was administratively and socially dangerous, in much the same way that all uncompromised zealots are dangerous; he wasn’t constrained by social pressures. Malcolm was a man who loved justice, and he wasn’t afraid of confronting powerful people over their unjust acts. That, I believe, probably frightened the Good Old Boys. 
Be that as it may, Malcolm languished in his sinecure for years. He was repeatedly passed over for promotions, for better assignments and for competitive schools… and yet he never stopped coming to work and doing his job. He got depressed over it, but he always put on a cheerful face for his customers and staff. Most importantly, he never stopped struggling to make things better. He determinedly used his rage to power more constructive activities.
In one memorable example, Malcolm got a call from another unit that wanted to borrow our parade field to hold an outdoor ceremony. It would have been a routine and easy arrangement; we weren’t using the field that day. Unfortunately, the requesting unit wanted to hold their outdoor ceremony in January, when a major winter storm was scheduled to slam the region. Malcolm hated the idea of soldiers freezing out in the sleet, and asked the Big Boss for permission to hold their ceremony inside one of our big heated airplane hangars instead.
The Big Boss at the time was a nasty and vicious man, consumed with inexplicable bitterness and fear. He denied the request out of petty spite, and sneered that if the soldiers didn’t want to freeze, then they should have been smart enough to enlist in a better service. Malcolm and I were aghast over the boss’s casual cruelty – our credo demanded that we never ‘leave a man behind’, and this refusal violated our core principles. There wasn’t even a practical reason to refuse; this was nothing more than a small man lashing out at strangers to assuage his own twisted self-loathing.
I wanted to verbally castigate (and possibly choke the life out of) the fellow, but Malcolm talked me out of it. Instead of compounding the man’s small-minded evil with more evil, Malcolm simply devoted all of his energy to arranging the ceremony anyway… inside the heated hanger. He made all the arrangements himself, including expending personal favours to make it happen. He quietly gave up his private time to make the operation happen.
It worked. The ceremony was a big success. No one froze. The soldiers, dignitaries and family members who took part were all deeply grateful for not having been forced to suffer outside in the sleet and -10C wind. In the end, decency and compassion won out over small-minded spitefulness. I was impressed: Malcolm covertly seized victory from the jaws of defeat, and thereby did right by a cohort of soldiers that he’d never met before, but still felt kinship with.
Earlier in this column, I mentioned that Western stories like Stagecoach allow us to examine themes and ideas from our own lives. They’re opportunities to explore both wise and foolish choices and see the consequences play out in the characters’ stories. In this story from Malcolm’s sordid career, we can explore the ways that people respond to the infuriating, abusive, humiliating condescension coming down upper management. Malcolm struggled with it, and found ways to redirect his rage and frustration into positive effects.
Along those lines, John Ford’s movie has a number of great scenes in it that a good storyteller can use to express this idea. There’s a scene about an hour is where the characters’ titular stagecoach arrives at a ferry crossing only to find the station burned down and staff either killed or scattered by raiding Apaches. Rather than decry the injustice or fight a suicidal last stand against the vastly superior enemies, the lawman in the party chooses to free John Wayne’s character to help get the horses, the coach and the noncombatants safely across the river. It’s a pragmatic decision, and one that only solves the immediate problem at hand,  but it’s likely the best application of the team’s limited resources given the circumstances. From a counselor’s perspective, the lesson to take away is that it is better to solve the immediate tactical problem that you’re capable of solving rather than waste your limited energy and focus on grappling with an insurmountable strategic problem.
We all tend to find ourselves overwhelmed by unacceptable situations in the workplace, and it’s easy to get lost in them. It’s also very easy to get consumed with our anger over the injustices manifesting around us. That’s human nature. That’s why we all need a rage coach of our own; someone to help us stay focused on fighting the battles that we can actually win – and to remind us to ignore the battles that we have no chance of surviving.
If you’re expecting me to discuss how my advice helped Malcolm to find his better path, then you’ve got it exactly backwards. I wasn’t Malcolm’s counselor… he was mine. Throughout all of the time that we served together, we both struggled to grapple with the constant corruption, injustice and petty hate that permeated the unit culture. We both burned with mostly-impotent fury over it. We wanted justice for all of the soldiers who couldn’t seem to get it through regular channels. Throughout all of it, Malcolm would get angry, and then he would bounce back. The man was irrepressible. Mostly, I believe, because he chose to focus on what he could do to make things better rather than stew over what he couldn’t. He encouraged me to bring incremental justice wherever I could, rather than waste my energy raging against an unsympathetic and unassailable behemoth.
Everyone needs help maintaining that perspective. We all need a friend, colleague or mentor to help us maintain a pragmatic focus. It’s right and natural to rage against injustice, but it’s better for everyone to do something useful to mitigate it. We all need a ‘rage coach’… even square-jawed, all-American, cowboy hero John Wayne.
I reckon there’s something to be said for heeding good advice, especially when it seems to go against your nature. It might just keep you engaged in the good fight long enough to do some good. I know that I survived a lot longer in a tremendously hostile environment by following Malcolm’s advice than I ever would have following my own instincts. That advice, in turn, let me help a lot more people… and helping people is what leadership is supposed to be all about.
 Unlike most science fiction and fantasy, where the fantastic elements frequently overshadow the under-developed characters, thereby making it much harder to keep the reader, listener or viewer invested in the narrative.
 Not his real name.
 That’s just one hypothesis though. There was plenty of compelling evidence to back up the simple racism hypothesis, too.
 Spoiler warning: the Apaches catch up to the party not long thereafter.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.