American View: The Trifleman

People listen closely to what their bosses have to say. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that responsible leaders should take advantage of their position to craft and deliver consistent messages that motivate people.

Back in 1958, Sam Peckinpah developed a Western TV series for ABC called The Rifleman. Peckinpah himself wrote and directed many of the show’s 168 episodes during its four-and-a-half-year run. Unlike contemporary Westerns on US television, the ongoing story of a widowed veteran and his child struggling to build a new life in New Mexico had a markedly different feel from conventional cowboy-and-Indian stories. Per one summary that I read, Peckinpah’s insistence on violent realism and complex characterizations, as well as his refusal to sugarcoat the lessons he felt the rifleman’s son needed to learn about life, put him at odds with the show’s producers’. That’s not surprising, given how Peckinpah’s later feature films turned out. The man had a unique style, and ideas to explore.

The core message communicated via the show’s adventures was advocacy for the concept of personal redemption. The show’s writers regularly advanced the idea that every fella who honestly wanted to rehabilitate should be allowed to. Many of the storylines were about former adversaries trying to go straight. The main characters might support the guest star throughout an episode, or they might deeply distrust the guest star at the beginning of the episode and only come around after a demonstrated act of atonement. By the end of most stories, though, the audience was presented the moral lesson that men aren’t born irredeemable; even a wicked man can realize the error of his ways and choose a new path. That was pretty subversive stuff for a country that had just ended the Korean War, the Second Red Scare panic and corrosive terror of McCarthyism.

The reason I bring this up is two-fold. First, I swear that wasn’t planning to do another Western-themed column this week. I got a wild hair to start doing cowboy-themed allusions six months ago and just sort of ran with it. [1] I assembled a manuscript based on the cowboy pieces back in July and hadn’t planned to pen any more. Then another hook caught my attention, and then another… I can’t seem to break out of my habit of telling business stories through a cowboy filter.

The allegorical kind; if cinema was realistic, most 'cowboy filters' would communicate nothing so much as obscuring dust.
The allegorical kind; if cinema was realistic, most ‘cowboy filters’ would communicate nothing so much as obscuring dust.

The other reason that I’m writing about old cowboy stories again (the real reason, if I’m honest) is because of the show’s central message. The idea of personal redemption. It’s a compelling idea that resonates with my leadership philosophy. That might be why I was drawn to the series in the first place, even though it’s not the sort of video fare that I normally prefer.

I’ve found that many of the best TV shows had a central message woven throughout their episodes, where a producer or writer tried to advance an argument for the viewers’ consideration. Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry tried to present a future where racial intolerance and petty nationalism had been rendered obsolete. His work captured audiences’ attention in ways that other sci-fi shows of the time couldn’t. Roddenberry’s vision contributed to the show’s (and the franchise’s) long-term success. Some people who grew up watching the original series deliberately attempted to change the world around them to reflect the fictional future that had appealed to them in their youth.

My point is that compelling messages delivered consistently (and subtly) can create positive change in audiences, especially when presented consistently over time. Rather than bludgeoning viewers over the noggin with a shrill, insistent screeds [2] the way that movies often do, an idea that’s explored slowly from multiple viewpoints over several encounters (in the form of TV episodes) is more likely to resonate and stick with viewers. Not on the first exposure, perhaps, but on the seventh or 17th, or 70th. Give your audience time to mull over your point, and they’ll be more likely to warm to it. Eventually, it might change how they see the world around them.

You could always serve up meaningless, saccharine schlock that has no continuity or compelling message instead. Leave your audiences philosophically empty after the end credits roll. That’s how many producers, writers and studios like to do it: churn out cheap, fast and disposable ways to burn away the idle hours between birth and death. The audience leaves each encounter with a sense of having been adequately diverted, but not having been changed for the better from the experience.

The majority of television entertainment barely registers as ‘content’ … just like the majority of all other forms of content.
The majority of television entertainment barely registers as ‘content’… just like the majority of all other forms of content.

I’m assuming that all of this is making sense. I’m not saying anything here that smarter and more eloquent analysts haven’t already discussed. I’m setting this as a foundation for the next logical extrapolation of my argument. I submit that the exact same principle applies to message delivered by leaders in the workplace. Leaders that have a message to deliver and who actively integrate their message into their operations are far more likely to create long-term positive change in their people’s lives than managers who simply show up and manage work without any sort of vision.

Let me offer two examples of this for your consideration. Here’s what I’m on about…

The first example involves a new director that we’ll call Alex. Alex took over an IT department that had spent over years rotting under a leader that used racial, ethic, gender and religious bigotry as a tool for keeping the employees focused on fighting one another. Alex had watched the department tear at itself for months and had decided that the team needed long-term changes to its culture if it was ever going to evolve into a viable business unit. Alex chose three core messages to promote:

  1. Technical proficiency is more important than title, longevity or past accomplishments. Whoever has the right answer gets to solve the problem at hand, no matter how junior.
  2. Diversity of thought makes everyone better at solving problems – and the department’s primary function in the company is to solve their business problems with technology.
  3. The department prizes justice and fairness above all other management principles.

Alex started plugging these message immediately in his first address to his managers. From then on, he touched on one of his three messages every time that an appropriate opportunity manifested. He didn’t try to ‘cram’ his messages in; he capitalized on openings. Over time, Alex’s messages started to resonate with people both inside and outside his organisation. Some workers took to his ideas and started to change their behaviour. Others disagreed and quit rather than change. Meanwhile, people outside his department saw the change in culture that Alex was aiming for and wanted to be a part of it. Over time, his department’s culture shifted to be progressively more tolerant, and respectful of one another. It took years for Alex to rebuild the department’s culture, but it eventually took root.

Alex’s changes took on a life of their own, perpetuating through subsequent generations of workers and leaders long after he departed.
Alex’s changes took on a life of their own, perpetuating through subsequent generations of workers and leaders long after he departed.

My second example involves a director named Bob. [3] Bob was already an experienced senior manager when he joined a new company and was given his own department to run. Bob got to pick most of his own employees. He was given carte blanche to create his group’s functions, priorities and identity. Unlike his peers in the division, Bob’s group had effectively no negative legacy to overcome; it was entirely his to shape. He had a perfect opportunity to build something exhilarating.

Instead, Bob chose to approach his group’s organisational culture as an unimportant byproduct of work performed. Bob never developed a core message or philosophical direction for his team. He didn’t have a vision for where he wanted the team to go. He chose to take a hands-off approach to management – leaving his managers and workers to choose their own priorities and work at their own pace. Bob spent 95 per cent of his time attending to his own projects, ignoring his team members.

When his team got together for social events – like team luncheons – Bob only discussed trifling topics like his personal hobbies (e.g. cars, home improvement, fashion, etc.). Bob’s people learned about what Bob valued outside of work, but rarely ever anything about what he wanted from them at work. Bob didn’t seem to have a vision for his team, or for what he wanted them to become. This left his people perpetually confused, disconnected and anxious. Morale corroded.

Bob’s would have been a fine approach had his team been comprised entirely of seasoned veterans who were already plugged in to the company’s needs and expectations. So it was… at first. Bob’s first hires came from inside the business. These workers managed themselves fine (at first). Later on, as the team expanded to include outsiders, Bob’s leadership approach started to fail. The new workers couldn’t manage themselves because they knew nothing about the company, how it worked, why it was changing or what they needed to be doing. Making things worse, the new hires didn’t have any sort of collective identity or common direction to fall back on when office life got confusing.

Which was always. Most days, the new workers would stagger in late, glance around to see if anyone else had found the plot, and then slip away early for lunch. Afternoons were for printing résumés on the good printer.
Which was always. Most days, the new workers would stagger in late, glance around to see if anyone else had found the plot and then slip away early for lunch. Afternoons were for printing résumés on the good printer.

I had an opportunity to interview Bob several times about his leadership philosophy. He was aware of the concept of advancing a core message, but he wasn’t interested; Bob felt that his workers should be self-motivated to accomplish management’s objectives because his success (as their leader) was in his workers’ essential self-interest. They should (he told me) go learn everything that they needed to know on their own. That autodidactic experience, Bob said, would cause his workers’ to naturally come into alignment with his own values – no work required on his part to guide them.

Setting aside the arrogance of his argument, Bob squandered opportunities to evolve his team’s culture. Alex had a goal when he took over his department and consistently challenged his people’s attitudes by advocating for his core messages. Bob had no goals beyond simple ‘business success’ (and even that was ill-defined). Years later, Alex’s department was still operating faithfully on the core principles that he’d advocated for during his term as director. Bob’s department, on the other hand, was dissolved and the majority of his team members had left the company.

Messages matter. To be fair, people don’t go to work to be changed; people resent being pressured to change by others. That’s natural. On the other hand, people are usually receptive to arguments made as part of larger discussions, especially when those arguments are advanced patiently over many encounters. This technique works in television when a team of writers and directors consistently explore a concept from many perspectives. It works in the office, too, when leaders consistently explore a principle through its practical application in multiple encounters involving workers’ conduct and their operating environment. Given time, the message is considered on its own merits. If the message is a worthy one, people will naturally internalize it.

I argue that leaders at all echelons have an opportunity to positively influence their people. When leaders define a message and deliberately advocate for it as fitting opportunities manifest, workers will listen. If the message resonates, people will act on it, thereby inspiring others to consider it as well. Conversely, leaders who squander opportunities to promote a vision for their people are doing their workers a disservice.

Your people are listening to everything that you say, so say something worth hearing. Advocate for positive change in such a way that people can consider your argument on its own merits and decide for themselves whether or not to embrace it.


[1] Galloped with it?

[2] Ahem. Starship Troopers, I’m looking at you.

[3] Everyone should have seen this coming. There’s always a Bob.

Title Allusion: Arnold Laven, and Sam Peckinpah, The Rifleman (1958 Television Series)

POC is Keil Hubert,
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.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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