q American View: Outland(ish) - Business Reporter

American View: Outland(ish)

It’s easy for a movie hero to be heroic; their story ends when the credits roll. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert relates a tale of an executives destructive descent into paranoia.

In fiction, the Lone Hero Beset On All Sides is an instantly recognizable and emotionally powerful movie trope. Audiences understand what to expect when a film introduces a stubborn and principled lead character who refuses to surrender to his enemies even when all of the people around him are too frightened to stand up for themselves. It’s so common a trope that it’s hard to imagine a Western movie without it. Consider one of the greatest Westerns of all times: 1952’s High Noon staring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The story was so popular that it’s been re-made dozens of times. Take director Peter Hyams’ 1981 movie Outland, for example, where the core of High Noon’s story was retold faithfully with a space station standing in for High Noon’s dusty frontier town. [1]

To this day, I conflate the two films because I saw Outland first and it stuck with me. It’s not as good a film as the original, but that’s fine. Outland is a solid story that grabs the viewer; it resonates on several levels. The Lone Hero character is abandoned by his wife and child, gets betrayed by his superior and by his most trusted subordinate, is ostracized by the citizens he’s sword to protect and is hunted by ruthless killers. Also, there’s nowhere for the hero to run because spaaaaaaaace. It doesn’t get much more Beset On All Sides than that. The hero can’t avoid his fate; he can only make his grim final stand and fight for a noble principle that the rest of his society doesn’t seem to share.

It’s a classic story. A noble story. It touches on symbols and themes of heroism that appeal far beyond the eras in which the stories are set. Stories like this are meant to inspire us to emulate the stalwart, beleaguered hero – to stand fast on our principles no matter how much the odds may be stacked against us. That’s the idea, anyway.

We all dream about being that hero.
We all dream about being that hero.

In pedestrian reality, following that path almost always leads to a dead, forgotten hero and no discernable change to the status quo. Reality sucks. To that point, I’d like to share a true story with you featuring certain career death, vicious personal politics and strategically feigned insanity.

I’m going to be vague about the setting, because it isn’t necessary for the telling. Suffice it to say that I’d served in a senior leadership role for this particular company for quite a while when we experienced a major change in executive leadership that put me in the doghouse. I’d crossed swords with some members of the new régime in previous years, and I appreciated that my new status in the organisation had changed overnight from ‘tolerated’ to ‘persona non grata’. Oh, well.

I’d already been looking to eject out of the organisation prior to the changeover. Once the new leadership team was announced, I started searching in earnest for someplace else to work. Unfortunately, the economy had tanked. So, when my smirking bosses told me that I was getting ‘involuntarily reassigned’ to a remote office, I didn’t have any choice other than to smile and take it. I knew that the transfer was just an intermediate step before being declared redundant.

Once I reached my new workgroup I learned that I’d been dropped into a horrific mess. Everything was chaos. There were multiple corruption problems, failing business practices, vicious internecine fighting and a complete loss of customer confidence to deal with. I figured that I might as well clean up as many messes as I could before the termination order came down.

Along those lines, yes – I knew with absolute certainty that I was going to be laid off in the very near future. I’d spent years cultivating my own network of spies throughout the organisation. My ‘little birds’ had been feeding me overheard snippets of conversations and peeks at administrative documents. I pretty much always knew what was going to happen to me before it happened. When my VP ‘broke the news’ to me that I was going to be transferred, I pretended that the news came as a great shock (even though I’d already known about the plan for a week).

If it’d been up to me, I would’ve been out the door and halfway down the motorway before the boss ever came knocking.
If it’d been up to me, I would’ve been out the door and halfway down the motorway before the boss ever came knocking.

Once I reached my cut-rate Elba, I focused all of my frustration into doing process overhaul, but only so that I’d have something to do while I waited. I thought that I’d have about 18 months to kill time based on the administrative rules that our company had about separations. I was wrong.

One of the first challenges I tackled after I arrived was to overhaul the personnel qualification programs. A large part of our operation involved delivering cargo between various production sites. The lorry drivers needed to maintain their Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in order to get behind the wheel. Driving with a suspended or revoked license exposed our entire company to severe fines – and the prospect of jail time for the top executives if the state could prove that they knew about an unqualified driver and failed to take him or her off the roster. [2]

The executives and key stakeholders had been complaining for years that our CDL program was broken, and that its unreliability was hurting production. So, I rebuilt it according to the governing regulations and started tracking overdue fitness cases. I soon began turning up evidence that a lot of cases had been mismanaged, and that unqualified employees were still on the drivers’ roster when they really needed to be cut loose or reassigned. I cajoled my staff to get the required paperwork done to clear cases. I badgered HR to process separations in a timely manner. I reported our case list up to the senior executives and promised to get them all cleared.

In a office hijinks movie, this sequence would be told in an upbeat montage. The handsome protagonist would be seen scurrying to and fro, holding meetings and typing reports. All the while, the dowdy secondary characters who represented the executives would be shown in comical reaction shots as reports got filed, leaving them surprised (but pleased). In reality, my reports were received with stony indifference. I’d been told that was ‘essential’ to clean up the mess… but none of the executives who had told me that seemed genuinely interested in the progress that we were making.

I searched for a stock photo on 'tepid executive indifference,' and got back ‘drunk dog on the beach.’ That’s … pretty much exactly what it looked like.
I searched for a stock photo on ‘tepid executive indifference’ and got back ‘drunk dog on the beach’. That’s… pretty much exactly what it looked like.

I learned why the bosses weren’t happy about a month after I launched the internal process reforms. I was busy typing up a weekly status report when one of my junior clerks stuck her head in the door to alert me that the deputy CEO – let’s call him ‘Bob’ – was going to pop by later for a ‘private appointment’ with the senior site administrator. I blinked. We didn’t do private appointments. We had a standard process for all of the drivers, no matter how senior. ‘Nope!’ the clerk said. ‘The executive staff have a special exemption. They only see the head-of-station, and she handles all of their paperwork herself.’

Ah. Um. Ahem. Yes. The pieces started to fall into place. Our remit was to determine whether or not employees were still qualified to operate a 75,000-kilo lorry on public roads. If our section head was performing ‘private’ exams that no one else in the process was privy to, she could record anything that she wanted… for example, giving her friends a clean report even when their actual tests came back disqualified. From an institutional integrity standpoint, this looked… really bad.

I asked our section head about it the next morning when she arrived to clear out some backlogged paperwork. She pooh-poohed my concerns and said that the private appointments were just a courtesy that we offered. Why should the senior executive staff have to wait in lines like everyone else? That was a waste of their very expensive time. I pointed out the lack of neutral oversight presented the appearance of impropriety, and was told that I was ‘being silly’.

If you were thinking this is where the ‘grim protagonist makes a fateful decision’ moment came, you’d be wrong. That moment happened a few weeks later when one of my senior bureaucrats asked me for a private appointment to discuss something serious. Without revealing how he found out, the clerk revealed that he’d uncovered irrefutable evidence that executive Bob was no longer fit to drive… and hadn’t been for years. Strangely, Bob had been on the drivers’ roster and had been drawing long-haul drivers’ pay and benefits… all because our section head had consistently ‘fixed’ Bob’s test documents to show that he was still safe to drive when he very definitely wasn’t.

I wasn’t worried about Bob dying in a fiery wreck. I was terrified for everyone else that he might run into in the process.
I wasn’t worried about Bob dying in a fiery wreck. I was terrified for everyone else that he might run into in the process.

I thanked my clerk for the grim news and closed my office door to have a long think. I was stuck in a Strossian bureaucratic nightmare scenario: I was honour-bound by our code of ethics to take Bob off the road immediately, lest someone get killed because of our negligence. On the other hand, I couldn’t legally present the proof that my clerk had given me since he’d violated an inviolable regulation to get it. I could take the proof to my section head and demand action, but it was clear that she’d been complicit in hiding the evidence. I could confront Bob… but he’d been one of the key players behind getting me exiled to the licensing department in the first place, and Bob had been instrumental in the backroom deals that put me on the next round of layoffs. Bob was already looking for reasons to screw me over; revealing that I’d discovered his secret would drive him feral.

In Outland, Sean Connery’s character investigates the deaths of several ‘space miners’ and uncovers a conspiracy to wire the labourers on speed so that they’ll be more productive. The space station staff were all in on the plot for a cut of the profits. Being the noble ‘Lone Hero Beset’, Connery decides to take on all of the drug smugglers, distributors and organizers alone even though he knows that they’ll do their darnedest to murder him to protect their lucrative racket. It’s a solid motivation for the hero and it makes for a riveting tale. The thing is, Connery was the protagonist of the movie; his name came first on the poster. Audiences knew that he’d survive whatever the antagonists threw at him because that’s how heroic stories work. The hero has to ‘win’.

Real life isn’t a movie. In real life, no one has to win a conflict. The ‘hero’ of a story is named after the story is finished, by whomever managed to defeat his rivals. I knew that tilting against this particular windmill would get me eviscerated, not celebrated. Bob had all the cards. I had bupkis.

I split the difference and brought the issue up with my section head. I told her that she really needed to deal with Bob’s problem – her, on her own, using her position of trust with Bob. Try to find a graceful way to protect Bob’s dignity and secure his pension, but do it in a way that didn’t put the general public in danger. She smiled at me and promised that she’d handle it.

‘I will totally take care of everything. Trussssssssst me.'
‘I will totally take care of everything. Trussssssssst me.’

She didn’t, of course. I don’t know exactly what she did, but it clearly involved telling Bob that I’d found him out. Three weeks after the section head and I had our off-the-record tête-à-tête, Bob called me into his office and gave me a wildly inappropriate arse-chewing over some trivial paperwork. It didn’t take a Sherlock level of insight to work out that Bob knew that I knew; the old bloke had been told that I’d found him out, and was terrified that I’d spill his secret. Maybe Bob thought that I’d do him in for principle’s sake alone. [3] Maybe he thought that I’d ‘out’ him to get petty revenge on him for having conspired to take my job. [4] Maybe he was just nuts.

The next several months turned into a surreal nightmare straight out of a Nicolas Winding Refn project. Bob rapidly descended into full-blown paranoia, accusing me of all sorts of conspiracy behaviour. He accused me several times of trying to draw the national office’s attention to his site in order to interfere with his operation. He accused me of lying to him and of maliciously disobeying his orders. Bob grew less and less coherent as we danced our dance. At one point, he got so obsessed with the idea that I was plotting to expose him that he waited behind a door for me to print a memo so that he could snatch it in order to ‘prove’ that I was up to something.

I’d spent years studying criminology and deviance as a junior social scientist, and I knew the signs. Nothing that I could say or do was going to convince Bob that I wasn’t going to ‘burn’ him with what I knew. Bob had grown up in a cut-throat culture where the only way to get ahead was to assassinate your rivals before they got you. I became clear that Bob couldn’t conceive of a rival possessing a weapon and not using it; therefore, every day that went by without a personal attack increased Bob’s anxiety until he seemed ready to explode.

By this point in the game, I was wasting my time pretending to work on ‘special projects’ for a junior executive. Most of that time was spent silently staring out a window. Bob’s anxiety had radiated out through the entire organisation so that no one wanted me anywhere near his or her section for fear of being accused by Bob of being a co-conspirator. Even my old friends from the plant pulled a Peter and pretended that they’d never known me. I understood why he did it (even if I can’t forgive their betrayal); I was definitely leaving the company, but they still had a chance or surviving the management pogrom. So, they denounced me thrice each to save their own hides.

‘What? No! Just because we worked together closely for years doesn’t mean we were friends. In fact, I never met him!'
‘What? No! Just because we worked together closely for years doesn’t mean we were friends. In fact, I never met him!’

In Outland and High Noon and all of the other ‘Lone Hero Beset’ stories, the protagonist has one great equalizer to get him through the conflict: violence. When the antagonist sends a mook after the hero, the hero can kill the mook. A dramatic moment of violence erases the opposing piece from the board – permanently. Eventually, the antagonist runs out of mooks and has to face the hero in a decisive showdown. The hero shoots true, the villain falls in the dusty street and the end credits roll.

Again, real life doesn’t work like that. You can’t gun down your rivals in a bureaucratic showdown. You can’t even throw a punch. Violence in the workplace means prison time, and rightfully so. Fisticuffs and firefights were absolutely off the list of acceptable options. That meant that any open conflict in the boardroom had to be paperwork-based and decisive: I had to either get Bob fired for cause – and end him instantly – or else evade his reach. I knew that Bob had the political backing of a dozen other executives and I had… none. The writing on the wall had made it clear that there wasn’t going to be a battle. Bob had won and I’d lost before we ever started feuding.

I tried talking sense (without revealing that I ‘knew’ what the issue was) and Bob didn’t react. I tried promising to keep a low profile and leave the stage quietly, and that didn’t sway him. The more I evaded Bob, the more aggressively he came after me. I’m sure that it drove him absolutely nuts waiting for the metaphorical knife to appear in his back, so he kept escalating with the threats, insinuations and shouting. Bob couldn’t seem to grasp that I was motived by enlightened self-interest, and that my only rational option I had was to refuse him battle. Bob couldn’t grok the idea.

Eventually, I realized that the only way to convince Bob that I wasn’t going to come after him was to give him a motivation that he could understand. I actually got the idea one night when I remembered William Peter Blatty’s 1980 viciously dark farce The Ninth Configuration. It struck me that sometimes you can only beat crazy with diametrically-opposed crazy. I realized that I had to convince Bob that I was as nutty (or perhaps nuttier) than he himself was. In Bob’s world, the only ‘sane’ thing to do was to attack one’s rival; it would be completely insane to waste a viable weapon. If I were insane, however, it would explain (to him) why I didn’t understand the notional ‘weapon’ I had, and why I wasn’t using it. That conclusion would (hopefully) tamp down Bob’s paranoid raving enough for me to escape his clutches.

The ploy worked. I started acting barmier and barmier around Bob and his key allies until they got the idea that I as crazy as the proverbial shittehouse rat. I made a bunch of weird statements around people (who I knew were secretly in Bob’s clique) that suggested that I’d lost touch with reality. Bob overplayed his hand by sending me to the company shrink to determine whether or not I was a potential spree killer. When that report came back negative, Bob relaxed and imperiously ordered me transferred to a remote campus for the remainder of my days. He even allowed the HR people to lay me off six months early. I skedaddled, took my severance check, and bolted for the horizon.

Over the wire and into the darkness.
Over the wire and into the darkness.

Am I telling this story to brag about beating Bob at his own game? Not really, no. I hated every minute of it. An experienced actor will tell you that trying to stay in-character consistently for months at a time can be intellectually and emotionally exhausting. I felt like a dissident trying to stay one step ahead of the Stasi while I waited for my chance to disappear beyond the proverbial wire. I reckoned that I had to give a convincing long-term performance if I wanted Bob to stop considering me an active threat. It wasn’t easy. Bob was desperate to keep his job, which made him terrified (as far as I could tell) of the leverage that he thought I had over him.

The thing is, it’s unfair to cast myself as the protagonist of our little drama. I’m sure that Bob believed himself to be the protagonist of his own story; a Lone Hero Beset in his own right, even though his irrational overreactions antics made him my antagonist. He was frightened of what I might reveal, and threatened my pay packet to intimidate me into silence. Fortunately or unfortunately, neither of us could risk escalating to a decisive gunfight in the car park, so we each spent months excruciatingly manoeuvering around one another in a sort of nutters’ judo. It was a huge waste of time, energy and company resources. It wasn’t, however, a heroic story.

Real life isn’t like the movies, much as we’d like it to be. There usually aren’t any heroes, nothing is ever decisive and there aren’t any happy endings. There’s just confusion, strife, and drama. No wonder then that the most effective way to escape a fight is often to act uncharacteristically outlandish… and then run like hell while your enemies are confused.

[1] Yes, I know there are differences between the two films; it’s not an exact copy. That being said, the theme, tone and atmosphere of the two films are largely identical – enough so that I’m willing to count Outland as a spiritual interpretation of High Noon even if it doesn’t match up as an exact copy. In support of my argument, here are director Peter Hyams’ own words from a 2014 interview with Empire where he discussed his motivations for Outland:

‘I wanted to do a Western. Everybody said, “You can’t do a Western; Westerns are dead; nobody will do a Western.” I remember thinking it was weird that this genre that had endured for so long was just gone. But then I woke up and came to the conclusion – obviously after other people – that it was actually alive and well, but in outer space. I wanted to make a film about the frontier. Not the wonder of it or the glamour of it: I wanted to do something about Dodge City and how hard life was.’

[2] This isn’t exactly what the company did, but it’s as close to it as it needs to be to correctly set the scene. Some obfuscation is necessary to protect the guilty and the innocent alike.

[3] That had been my usual approach to institutional corruption while I’d worked for him, so I can understand why he’d assume it was my primary motivation.

[4] That would have made perfect sense had I been as petty and self-destructive as some of his other managers. I wasn’t.

Title Allusion:  Peter Hyams, Outland, (1981 Film); Fred Zinnemann, High Noon (1952 Film); William Peter Blatty, The Ninth Configuration (1980 Film)

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, and Horrible Bosses at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil 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.

© Business Reporter 2021

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