Applying Spotlight Lessons in Management

Sushrut Munje shares on Frankaffe what organizations and business leaders can learn on team management from Spotlight (2015), directed by Tom McCarthy.

What makes a great cinema is the story, how it is told, the actors and the analogies you can infer – for no art is really relevant till you could perceive it from where you stand. Spotlight made for an impressive watch – for every scene was designed to matter. The method and discipline followed by the investigative team of journalists was an effort to be studied, and it would be helping entrepreneurs conduct their business better for sure.

The reason why this film inspired is because it is a story of a small team, dedicated in its mission, against mighty odds. Without wasting time in fluff, the film focuses on work at hand and how sheer grit finds a way. It beats myths, beats misconceptions and offers a fresh perspective on how leadership across organizations should think. Companies are now applying these decade old lessons.

Identifying and Empowering

A leader might conceptualize, but the leader need not always lead from the front, for there are able people who are much better at that specific job. True leadership identifies who is capable enough to solve the problem, explains the objective, revisits to ensure everyone stays on the same page, ensures focus is maintained, offers required resources and gets out of the way. Characteristics of empowered teams include clear understanding of the big picture, clear short term and long term goals, and a well defined freedom to take decisions.

Layers of Priorities

A problem is a like a beefy burger, and it is tempting to go for it all at once. Just like every layer in a burger is different, so is every layer in a problem – some aspects might be related to the people involved, some might be related to the system itself. A leader helps with clarity, applies self discipline to separate entangled layers and asks the team to focus on one at the cost of another.

When the entire problem is yelling out at you, choosing to focus on one aspect takes patience and confidence. Passions run high in empowered teams, it takes a leader and his cool head to stay focused on the direction. Respect is always earned and the team falls into the place despite everything. In a war, it is not wise to strike down the enemy at every perceived opportunity – everyone and everything has a role to play in the future. True courage is in knowing when not to take a life, when not to strike a blow, when to stand down. An apparent disadvantage now can be an opportunity in disguise. A leader is intuitive and sees through all despair.

Hitting the System

Transformational leadership is when you roll up your sleeves and delve into the muddled system to change its very nature. You talk to people and help them change. You understand who works with whom and turn the process over its head, for good. You observe the brand and add a new tone to its communication.

In order to build an organization geared towards sustainable growth, you need its foundations to be strong – academically and spiritually. You need the right people in the right roles, believing in the right ideals. The misfits have to leave, the good folks who are not moving fast enough have to leave as well. You have to push yourself in and make fundamental change happen. The organization will never have to be the same again.

It is easy to take out the fringe elements, they are always asking for it. It is easy to revel in self declared glory to take out fringe elements & flanks & arms – but we turn a blind eye to how Hydra works – two necks grow when you chop off one – and that’s the story behind every nagging problem. Lasting and effective change happens when you hit the system and undo the Hydra.

Stumbling in the Dark

“We forget that we spend most of our time stumbling in the dark and when suddenly the lights come on, there is a lot of blame to be passed around.” Project teams, quite like the investigative team of journalists, are handed a one line objective to be achieved. From finding out where and how to start, to struggling with the right path takes time, and a lot of mistakes are made. It takes time to stitch the pieces together, and it’s fine, as long as you’re constantly learning, building a feedback loop and working towards the stated objective. If required, even objectives evolve – as insights and changed market conditions flow in.

A leader understands and sees this with clarity. He ensures that people stay together, work hard together and appreciates the good work done. It is easy to forget how it was like stumbling in the dark when the lights are back on, and the time spent seems like time wasted. We do not realize that the time spent, in fact, made us what we are now. We ought to be grateful for every moment spent, every interaction, and every apparent coincidence that leads us towards our goal. Gratitude goes a long way in helping us stay focused.

In the Background

Good films essay out understated roles in the background – the characters being essential to the plot, often setting the direction and being the platform – but not being the tip of the spear. Spotlights focus on the tip because it makes one bleed, yet the handle and the hand that thrusts the spear is equally important. An organization is not one spear, it has multiple ones being let out in multiple directions. As a result, the leader is the hand that thrusts, calm and secure in the background, allowing his team to revel in the glory. A leader identifies the difference between a word and a word with an adjective – and seeks to add meaning using a simple word, thus adding weight to your speech. You cease to be a king when you have to keep declaring the fact. You become a king by doing what a king does.

Feast of the Epiphany

Understanding the distinction between ‘the concept’ and ‘how it turns out thanks to the execution team’ is crucial – because it is easy to judge a concept by its Outcome VersionOne, and not being patient enough to wait for Outcome VersionTwo and Outcome VersionThree. Concepts can be good in theory, but outcomes depend on competencies of each team. Teams change, outcomes vary. And not being judgmental, seeing through the entanglement and recognizing the real issue, needs strength.

In Spotlight, the team of protagonists published their findings on a Sunday, on the occasion of Feast of the Epiphany. The blow was significant and symbolic, for they were keen on bringing down the system of falsehood and lies. They were not attacking what the Catholic Church stood for, they were attacking the false construction that was built on its way.

Choosing Our Spotlight

Effective leadership, effective communication and team building go a long way in building strong organizations. People and their behavior has an effect on revenue growth, and how the organization is perceived by the outside world. I believe in the marriage of human resources management and marketing – thus the desire to manage both at SILA, and being grateful for been given an opportunity to do so. I love movies, and am grateful that there are so many awesome ones being made for us to learn from.

  2 comments for “Applying Spotlight Lessons in Management

  1. March 16, 2016 at 4:00 am

    An hour through the movie (am still didn’t finish it!) I paused from the shock! This movie compressively explain how a good team should operate by example! So i though that i should Google it then i stumbled on your article!
    Thanks…

    • Sushrut Munje
      March 16, 2016 at 9:44 am

      Thank you, Abdullah!

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