May 30, 2015

Does Danny Collins teach you how to be a better leader?

By Paul Laughlin

Danny CollinsWatching “Danny Collins”, Al Pacino’s latest movie, with my wife yesterday, was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

It has a good story, great acting performances and is engrossing throughout. Perhaps it shows a sad addiction to my topic of interest, but reflecting afterwards a number of leadership lessons struck me.

The central character, Danny Collins, is often quoted as being “a ridiculous man“. Which he is.

However, this deeply flawed character also has a good heart, even if he normally shows it in the wrong way. Without spoiling it for you, as the film is worth seeing, his successes and failures reveal a number of lessons for all leaders. Perhaps such a human rather than idealised character also makes these lessons feel more attainable.

Here are a few that struck me:

  1. Only you can make the decision to be true to yourself
  2. Persistence does pay dividends
  3. Generosity does win people over

Perhaps those don’t immediately strike you as corporate leadership lessons, but let me elaborate as to how I see them apply…

Firstly, a key theme in the movie is the challenge for Danny to be “true to his music” or true to himself, as challenged in the letter from John Lennon. I’m sure all those who have held leadership roles in corporate life can attest to what a challenge this can be. Succeeding in such a world requires political savvy as well as expertise and character. But this can too often become cloak for becoming an unprincipled chameleon like character. Knowing when to say ‘no further’ is an art rather than  a science.

Having myself left corporate life to “follow my dream“, I can also attest to the tremendous motivational power of finding your sweet spot. By this, I am referring to what Peter Bregman or Steven Covey would identify as the overlap between what you love, what you’re good at & what others will pay for. Taking time out to rediscover what that is for you is well worthwhile. It can at the very least give you a compass in corporate life as to time or work to protect.

Secondly, Danny has a number of achievements during the film almost solely through simply persisting. Over many years creating and leading customer insight teams within major insurers and banks, I can attest to that principle. Life, as they say, is a marathon not a sprint. Quite often the race is not to the swift and that persistent tortoise who refuses to give up does win through.

I would especially encourage persistence when pioneering. Whether it is setting a customer insight strategy, creating a new team, growing the influence of insight to shape marketing spend or just addressing a key customer concern – stick with it, you may lose a battle but win the war, by giving up.

Lastly, Danny is almost incurably generous. Yes he has a crazy amount of money to spend and yes some of those he chooses to indulge are far from worthy, but still his generosity does impact those around him. This too has proven to be true in business life. I find there is a greater awareness of reciprocity and looking to help each other amongst start-ups and SMEs, but the principle still applies within corporate leadership too.

Human nature is largely governed by established patterns of though and behavioural biases (including habits). When you are generous to others, they will have to fight against an internal inclination to give you something in return. At the very least a persistently generous attitude to others builds strong relationships and a positive reputation. I have found that generosity in your time & care with those who work for you & with leaders in other departments (including a willingness to share the glory for achievements) makes sense. You never know when you will need help from others, so making those emotional bank account  deposits is an enjoyable & shrewd way to work with them.

I hope those are of interest. Please do share your experience of these principles and how they have or haven’t worked for you. Plus let us know what you thought of the movie. Have a great weekend!