Zero Dark Thirty: Drawing Lines Between Leadership and Influence

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There is quite a bit written about leadership. Books, blogs, articles plus conferences, banquets, seminars. There are people that have careers predicated on teaching about leadership, cultivating leaders, and leadership theory. It’s funny when you get to the point in life when you pick up that business book and read the first few chapters only to realize, “Wait a minute. I’ve read this before.” There’s only so much that can be said about leadership and each generation probably has a new expression and a new voice. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

So recently when I was watching Zero Dark Thirty for what must be the 100th time I noticed something: a distinction can be made between “leadership” and something I will call “influence.” For starters, leadership is generally assigned. It doesn’t mean this person doesn’t have influence, but the influence tends to be more embodied in the seat of the position instead of within the man or woman’s personhood — that is, who they are. One of my favorite writers talks about bringing the full “weight” of who you are. That’s influence. Watching Zero Dark Thirty we see that the principal character, Maya, and the person who drives close to 100% of the plot has no positional authority. She can’t tell others what to do even when it becomes clear that there are some plausible next steps. She can’t just snap an order or directive to make things happen. Is this right? I don’t know, but it happens every day in our firms, factories, and churches. Maya has to tap into something deeper. Something beyond job titles. She has to cultivate influence. Here are a few examples with some descriptions. I think there are some lessons for all of us here.

Give me the team I need.
Influence is passion. In fact, it’s 9 parts passion and 1 part everything else. In this scene Maya passionately lays the truth out on the table and in this scene we are left with no other conclusion beyond this: truth is a powerful tool. I’ve said before that a leader is only effective to the extent that she, or he, is afraid of losing her job. I love how Maya tells the station chief here that he can turn her loose to the job she’s been effectively “called” to do … or send her home. You might call this “selling out” to your mission, but in my life I’ve found that people respond to this kind of passion. In fact, we can’t help ourselves: we cannot be indifferent to passion at the highest levels. Ralph Waldo Emerson purportedly said that nothing great is ever done without enthusiasm. Passion is the first standard deviation of influence. Note: There may be offensive language in the clip below.

Count the Days
There’s a great line in Elizabethtown by Kirsten Dunst’s character Claire Colburn: “All forward motion is progress.” In Zero Dark Thirty, once Maya’s quest has found its end and next steps lay beyond her immediate control, she finds a way to exert influence through persistence. We’re led to believe that, every single morning, Maya writes the number of days that have passed without action in dry erase on the office window of the director. She will not be ignored. She is a constant reminder of both the stakes and the real story. Influence isn’t given. And it may not even be earned. More often than not, influence results from steadiness and advancing a given movement, idea, or project. Influence at times is only realized through brute force and will. That is, you stay on point. Maya literally moves a government with a dry erase marker. If all forward motion is progress, then every minute of every day matters.

Two Narratives
Tell your story, believe it, and keep telling it. More than ever, stories have become the language of our culture. We’re pre-wired to understand stories, understand the implication, and if they resonate with something within us, accept them as a part of our own personal narrative. Although she has no real positional authority, Maya becomes an influential force by never, ever turning away from an opportunity to tell her story. In this case it’s not only reminding people that Osama bin Laden is the objective, but how she’s going to get him. Most of us have two problems in this area: we don’t tell our stories enough or we don’t know our story well enough. To generate organizational influence you must know your story. Know your numbers. Know the facts. Know the narrative. Know the research. Connect the dots. A friend told me one time, “Want to know how you know when you’ve changed culture? You’ve changed culture when your values and objectives become a passing joke at the water fountain, that’s when you know.” Note: There may be offensive language in the clip below.

Know Your Objective
Influence and leadership tend to convene here to a degree. William of Ockam gave us what has come to be known as Ockam’s Razor. That is, we “cut” all the superfluous information that clouds our ability to see the essence of the problem or challenge. Of course, leaders must keep the objective in mind. It’s crucial to moving an organization. Quite different from keeping the objective in sight, however, influencers must obsess over the objective. An influencer lives and breathes the objective until it becomes who he is. You may call this “singleness of vision” or something like that. Influencers are not simply managers or delegators, they are engines. Engines need a direction or destination on which to exert their force. Storytelling is the vehicle of influence, but the objective is the fuel.

The last scene in Zero Dark Thirty is interesting in this respect. Once the objective is realized and the pursuit is over, what does an influencer do? For most of us, we move on. For Maya it’s not quite that simple. What’s overwhelmingly evident in this scene, though, is that she won. She put herself in motion and harnessed all the influence at her disposal to accomplish the task before her.