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  • Rick Ktorides

5 Project Leadership Lessons - The Fugitive

Project Management is one of those professions where there is a tonne a stuff you can read up on about the technical nature of the job - but not much you can actually watch in action and in practice!

There are however some golden nuggets out there in movies you can draw inspiration from.

One of those movies is The Fugitive (1993) starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones which has some great leadership lessons that can be applied to Project Management.

It's the role of Samuel Gerard (played by Jones) that we are interested in.

He's a US Marshall who's been assigned to track and capture fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble (played by Ford).

I first watched this movie in January 1996 on VHS and remember being in awe and simply blown away with how effective a leader Jones's character was in the movie as well as how well Jones played the role!

I did a little research for this article and as it turns out, Tommy Lee Jones actually won an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for his portrayal. The film was also nominated for Best Picture back in 1994.

Samuel Gerard's leadership style is also often used as great example of the five leadership practices as defined by Jim Kouzes and Barry Z Posner in their award-winning and best-selling book, The Leadership Challenge.

The five practices being:

  1. Model the Way

  2. Inspire a Shared Vision

  3. Challenge the Process

  4. Enable Others to Act

  5. Encourage the Heart

So, here's my project management slant of Samuel Gerard's leadership as demonstrated in the movie (spoiler alert):

Lesson 1 - Take control and assert authority

If you do not control and lead your project - it will end up controlling and leading you instead!

In the movie, it's local sheriff Rawlins who is first in charge. He is confidently leading the effort and shows little time and respect for Gerard when he shows up.

Although genuinely well intentioned, he dismisses any recommendations Gerard makes out of hand and in front of the whole team.

Furthermore, Rawlins is truly and utterly convinced he has the matter at hand and is doing all the right things.

Gerard's first challenge is to establish his authority and take control of the team - he goes about this as follows:

  1. Assesses what's going on

  2. Identifies the hard facts

  3. Directly challenges assumptions already being made vs. facts gathered

  4. Establishes his authority and quickly takes control

  5. Clearly defines the next steps to enable others to act

See it in action - it's the part where Gerard and his team roll up on the scene for the first time around the 20-minute mark in the movie.

Similarly in project management - project managers are often faced with a scenario where someone else such a highly influential stakeholder or even an outspoken project team member, is actually leading the project.

The project manager just goes along for the ride to avoid confrontation!

The problem in this scenario is that the influential stakeholder / out-spoken project team member does not have any accountability to deliver the project within constraints such as cost or schedule - which the project manager is bound by.

They would not necessarily be leading the project in the same way from behind the scenes if they were directly held to account and at the forefront - no matter how well intentioned they may be.

It's a sure road to an out of control project.

Lesson 2 - Have an awesome project kick-off meeting

The project kick-off meeting you run is the equivalent to a first impression and it's about confirming facts, what the goals are and enabling your team to act - make sure it's awesome!

Gerard's style in the movie in relation to how he goes about this is as follows:

  1. Communicates to his team clearly the scope of what's going on to establish one single common understanding - rather than assuming that his team would already have the same understanding

  2. Gives his team crystal clear instructions with respect to exactly what he wants out of them, the outcome and the next steps - so no one is left unsure what they are supposed to do or what they are working towards

  3. Comes across to his team as confident, assertive and a more than capable leader that's setting the pace - as a member of his team, you know what's going on, feel empowered, inspired and raring to go!

Additionally, if you're an executive level stakeholder, you're left feeling assured the work is in great hands - rather than feeling a little concerned the work could be in better hands

See it in action - it's in the trailer of the movie (link below in the comments section).

This is Gerard's most famous speech in the movie which he gives with a certain confidence and swagger to kick-off the search.

"Listen up, ladies and gentlemen!
Our fugitive has been on the run for 90 minutes.
Average foot speed over uneven ground, barring injury, is 4 miles-an-hour which gives us a radius of 6 miles!
What I want out of each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, ware-house, farm-house, hen-house, out-house and dog-house in that area.
Checkpoints go up at fifteen miles . Your fugitive’s name is Dr. Richard Kimble.
Go get him!!"

Similarly in project management - the project kick-off meeting is a great early opportunity to get all stakeholders in the same room, express clear project goals, impress on project constraints, as well as what you expect out of every person in the project working group.

It's all about inspiring a shared vision and enabling others to act !!

Lesson 3 - Be passionate about what you do

If you are really passionate about your job, traits such as determination, attention to detail, being thorough and always going that extra mile become second nature and are just things you do as standard.

There's no question about it - throughout the entire movie, Gerard exhibits all these traits and it rubs off on his team and those around him.

He sets the standard for others to follow.

Additionally, he does not waste energy or thought cycles being consumed by negative aspects of his role and the resulting burdening emotions of doing so.

This would invariably de-motivate his team.

Rather he focuses all the energy on driving the team forward towards goals and success.

Similarly as a project manager - you can't really expect your team to give their level best and go above and beyond if you as a leader are focusing on negatives, have little enthusiasm and present a demeanour of just not caring.

You need to be passionate about what you do, the project you are leading as well as get excited about achievements your team is making.

In doing so - you are modelling the way and encouraging the heart!

Lesson 4 - Stick to your scope

Keeping to both the agreed scope of your role and project scope are one of the most important aspects to leading your project to a successful outcome - don't get emotionally driven by others to exceed your scope!

This may sound easy to do and a no brainer, however in practice it can get complicated especially when emotions come into play.

Gerard's scope of work in the movie is simple, his job is track down and capture a fugitive and he never loses sight of that - even through to the very last scene.

The movie however takes us through the emotional journey where we (as the audience) become so vested in Kimble's plight and the injustice of his situation, that we actually find ourselves rooting for Gerard to somehow go off-scope.

We want him to help prove Kimble's innocence because it's the right thing to do!

Kimble: "I didn't kill my wife"
Gerard: “I don't care!”

As the audience, we feel that Gerard should care as we have become sympathetic to Kimble, however Gerard is having none of it.

"Gerard: I'm not trying to solve a puzzle here"

Similarly in project management - it's much easier to go off-scope (sometimes without even realising it) especially as we become emotionally vested and sympathetic to the plight of others, or when pressured to do so by those in authority - rather than confronting people accordingly to maintain strict scope.

Lesson 5 - Stop relying on "lazy" assumptions

Every project manager has experienced this.

It's that sickening feeling you get listening in bewilderment that an assumption holding everything together you never really checked up on (but always knew you should have) turns out to simply not be the case.

Whilst you try to put on your best poker face that everything is OK and under control, you feel incredibly regretful for not having gone that extra mile and having invested a bit of time to confirm that assumption when you had the chance.

In the movie, there are several examples of "lazy" assumptions others make, but Gerard knows better and has none of it - even when pressured by those around him to do so.

Gerard's leadership does not allow for much complacency!

Gerard: "I wanna see a helicopter come over here 100 feet off this river"
Officer: "What, are you out of your mind? He's dead!"
Gerard: "Then that ought to make him easy to catch"

In Closing...

Whilst The Fugitive is not a movie about project management nor Gerard a straight up project manager, the leadership qualities exhibited are the very same you need to excel in project management.

Project Managing the technical aspects of your project such as schedule, budgets, scope, risk, task assignments, Gantt charts etc is only just half the equation.

Leadership - such as the kind that Samuel Gerard demonstrates in the movie is the magic sauce that will hold your projects together and second half of the equation that gets you on the path to successful project outcomes.

If you're in the thick of your project - everything's a deadline, your team is all over the place, scope is out of control, fast running out of money, stakeholders have you on the run...

...or if you're just in need of some leadership inspiration...

Check out The Fugitive!


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