It’s one of my favorite “beer in hand” statements when I get together with people at conferences: "I'd like to teach a day long seminar about team leadership. I'd start with showings of Werner Herzog's Aguirre: Wrath of God, and Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, then I’d follow it up with discussion."
Whenever I say that, I usually get stunned silence and furtive looks at the bartender (cut this guy off!) but I am serious. I think that those two movies are not only entertaining, but a great launching point for a discussion of team leadership.
Aguirre: Wrath of God is a quasi-fictionalized account of Spanish explorer Lope de Aguirre. Lope was part of an expedition across the Amazon to find El Dorado (the city of gold). On the path down the Amazon, he killed two leaders of the expedition (one after the other) assumed leadership, destroyed villages and demanded that the other members of the expedition declare him Prince of Peru, Tierra Forma, and Chile. In real life, he was shot and quartered. In the film, he was the last man standing from the expedition, flailing in madness, lording over a pack of monkeys on a deserted river raft as it crept down the Amazon. The film was a bit more poetic in that regard.
Herzog’s Aguirre (played by Klaus Kinski) is a textbook portrayal of ambition, narcissism, and sociopathy. Kinski’s mechanisations and visual ticks as his character leads his "team" on the mother of all death marches are incredible to watch, and learn from. If anyone around you acts like Aguirre, run.
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise on the other hand, is a documentary about a mid-20th century African-American jazz musician (Herman Poole Blount a.k.a. ‘Sun Ra’) who claimed that he was from Saturn, recruited one of the most promising saxophonists of his generation (John Gilmore) and started a band called ‘Sun Ra Arkeststra.’ The Arkestra dressed up in space aged costumes, created their own rituals and avant-garde music and toured the US and Europe for years.
I'm not going to say much more about Aguirre: Wrath of God right now. Instead, I'm going to leap into the Sun Ra film. Throughout it, we are led into the world of the band. We hear Sun Ra philosophize about the world - how it is made of myth and how his myths are as good as anyone else's. Through it all, you notice how much the band is like a cult and you wonder why all of these people fell out of society to go along with something this goofy. But on the other hand, the film is oddly mesmerizing. You get the feeling that the band members really didn’t believe that he was from Saturn – that they gave up their normal lives to join this touring band so that they could play, not just in the musical sense but in the broader sense as well.
Everyone knows that cults can be dangerous, recent history is full of examples, but what about a cult that plays on the edge of "play"? Where everyone knows with a wink and smile that they are just playing? I can imagine it being a rather liberating experience. In the film Sun Ra winks at us. It's all a game, but one he decided to play for fun. It's worth thinking about how much playing we do in real life, really - play which isn’t much fun because the nod and wink aren't there.
Chef/author Anthony Bourdain once wrote that having a restaurant kitchen is like running your own pirate ship. If you see work that way, how can it be anything other than interesting?
For years I’ve looked at software development teams and asked myself what makes the good ones tick. It's hard to single out answers because teams can be good in many different ways. One thing that I come back to often, though, is the sense that a good team has an inner life. People joke with each other. The feel somewhat protected against the other parts of the organization, and they have people who make it fun. That last bit is an act of leadership and often it comes about because of a strong leader, someone who defines the mythos of the team – who we are, what makes us different? The person doing this doesn't have to be a manager, but I have seen managers do it. People who adopt this role instinctually look for the minor dramas that bind people together and foster them. It's fun to see it when it happens.
There’s a vogue now for self-organizing teams in software development. That works, to a degree, but as often as not, there’s a certain listlessness to many of them, a sense within them that everyone is always waiting for someone else to step up. Ultimately, I think leadership is an individual action, and it can be an act of play that facilitates good work. I don’t suggest you jokingly tell your coworkers you’re from Saturn, but there are many actions south of that which might help.