A few years ago, inspired by the films he watched during his naval training, Frank wrote this funny little blog post about Godzilla and leadership. Years later, it’s still our most popular post – and it’s even been used in a few MBA course syllabi. We’ve included the entire original post below:
(original post here: http://me2-solutions.com/2013/05/leadership-lessons-from-godzilla.html)
One week when I was eight, Channel 9 in Los Angeles chose Godzilla as their Million Dollar Movie – the original Godzilla with Raymond Burr. They played it every day for a whole week. I saw the movie eight times in eight days! It was love at first sight. There’s something universal about Godzilla that really speaks to kids’ imaginations – three generations later, my grand kids still clamor to watch it every time they come over.
50+ years since I first heard Godzilla roar, I’ve worked with everyone from the Boy Scouts to Rickover to Congress. I’ve studied Attila the Hun and Sun Tzu and modern business leadership gurus. But looking back, I realize that everything I needed to know about leadership, I learned in that first Godzilla movie.
1. In the Beginning – when a problem first appears we make up lame excuses for what’s happening.
Ships mysteriously bursting into flames and sinking – that’s all the information that anyone has at first. So what does our fearless hero have as an answer? “Maybe it was a mine!” It’s a truism that we always seek to explain mysteries with the known or familiar. That means that we can deal with the problem because we know what the answer will be. It’s not that big a deal. The unusual doesn’t appear to be unusual in the beginning.
2. Godzilla can’t be scheduled, Godzilla happens when Godzilla happens.
Problems are always unscheduled. After all, if they are scheduled, then we can and would be prepared for them or avoid them. It like the Weather Bureau’s 100-year events – they are supposed to occur only once in a hundred years – but how many times have you heard “storm of the century” lately on the news? (Hint: There are 89.3 million hits on Google) The Weather Bureau makes a lot of their predictions based on what’s happened in the past – If we have a low pressure area here, then we’ll have snow here. And yes, they have a lot of science to back up their predictions, but it’s based on what’s happened before.
The Challenger blew up 73 seconds after launch because the launch was scheduled for a very cold morning and the O-rings were too brittle to contain the gases generated by the boosters. So easy to see after the event, but evidently, before the event, it was impossible to see. Which leads to our next lesson…
3. When Godzilla first appears we’re always surprised
Experts don’t have a clue until they have data and it takes time to gather data and understand the information generated. If you can gather information, create models and run enough simulations, then it’s easy to know – or at least have a good idea – what will happen when the unexpected happens. But we can’t conceive of what we can’t imagine.
If the largest animal is an elephant, then why would you ever think that an animal could be 450 feet tall? (In the original, Gojira was only 150 feet tall.) Or spit fire? Or that someone would deliberately fly a jetliner with a full load of passengers into a skyscraper?
(Side note: On 9/11, I spoke with my division director who was a retired Air Force pilot. He explicitly stated that he couldn’t imagine flying a plane into a skyscraper – everything in his training and experience said you avoided crashing into buildings even if it meant you stayed with the plane as it augured into the ground.)
4. When Godzilla wants to play, you have to play with what you’ve got.
When it hits the fan, you don’t have the time to plan, buy supplies, build new systems, or even run for cover. You are it. So, what do you do? Well, I hope you really understand what you have in people, materials and other resources because you will have to respond or be the one stomped on.
The fact is that many of the unexpected problems can be responded to or, at least, reduced the consequences of, with actions or procedures that would work for problems we were expecting. When Godzilla appears, having a plan to evacuate your neighborhood in case of an industrial accident – say a rail car full of chlorine gas derailing – will work if you have to evacuate because of a 450 foot green lizard. You will have an idea of what you have to do, at the least. It’s better than the refrain:
When in trouble or in doubt,
Run in circles, Scream and Shout.
5. If at first you don’t succeed, the usual response is “Get bigger tanks”
We’ll send in tanks! But, if at first you don’t succeed (which didn’t with Godzilla), then what do we do when he shows up again (in at least 27 movies) – Get bigger tanks! Get more tanks! But if an 80 mm shell doesn’t faze him, what makes you think a 120 mm shell will do better?
Leadership always tries what worked in the past. It goes something like this: So let’s see …. natural disaster… imminent doom… ummm…. HEY! Sacrificing virgins worked for centuries! Let’s get some virgins and send them out on a raft!
Er… maybe not. HR would probably have some problems with that approach.
The fundamental problem is that “leadership” can’t just sit back and NOT do something – so a lot of effort, money, people and resources are thrown at the unexpected problem, often without a lot of thought or preparation. Yes, it’s wasteful, but at least they’re doing something, right? Wrong.
6. That new technology is not the answer.
The Lone Ranger is not the only person who believes in silver bullets – managers and leaders love them. A silver bullet is the magic solution that will make everything work perfectly, quickly, cheaply, with less personnel, etc. But what most people don’t get about that new technology is that it probably wasn’t designed to handle what you’re dealing with.
The Coast Guard had a wonderful management control system in place for use during Hurricane Katrina like emergencies. When the real thing hit the system didn’t work but the on-site commander had a big wall and lots of Post-ItTMnotes and was able to manage the rescue efforts successfully.
The local emergency response system in another locale decided to use cell phones to communicate with radios for backup which worked great during trials, practice and regular use – but was hopelessly jammed by tornado-generated EMI. But, heh, we’ve never had a tornado before!
7. Before you celebrate, make sure Godzilla is really dead.
At one point, the JSDNF drop depth charges and everyone assumes that Godzilla is dead – what could survive Japanese depth charges? (Historical Note: A lot of American submarines.) There’s no body but that is easy to explain even though fish float to the top when they are exposed to explosives.
We love to announce that problems are solved and we can all get back to living our normal lives. It helps our psyches deal with the uncertainty – we don’t handle change very well. But often the problem is not solved – only the symptoms have been covered up – until new symptoms appear and we have to deal with the problem again. But now it’s a new problem!
For example, the answer for mental illness was once lock them up and forget them. Then we had a new era where it was decided that we couldn’t lock these people up and they were released. Now we have a problem were much of the homeless population is mentally ill and not receiving treatment and instead receive attention from police. Have we ever addressed the real problem?
8. Someone has the answer.
There is always an answer – the question is “Who has it?” For centuries, the treatment for disease was everything from burning herbs to bloodletting to evil spirits. It wasn’t until Fleming discovered a fungus that was killing bacteria in a Petrie dish that penicillin, the first antibiotic was discovered. Did the fungus suddenly mutate? No, it was there along – it just took the right person with the right knowledge at the right time in the right situation to “discover” it.
9. Someone on your team knows who has the answer
Someone in your organization knows the answer, but they are not part of the management team or in leadership. Here’s where it pays to listen to everyone – meaning put everyone to work on the solution.
There’s the old adage, “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Sorry, that’s no true – if the world doesn’t know you exist, how can they beat a path to your door? Not only do we have to see the solution, we have to KNOW that it’s the solution.
But someone in your organization knows. In NASA it was the engineers who knew that launching in cold temperatures resulted in brittle O-rings which were likely to fail, but management wasn’t listening. And compounding the problem by playing post office only makes the recriminations later more damning. (Remember as a kid passing a message from one person to another down a long line? What came out the end wasn’t anything like the original message.)
Of course, you can always blame the person who knows because they didn’t speak up loud enough or demand your attention – even though management has punished those who had done it before.
10. Someone Always Pays – most likely, not the ones who caused Godzilla.
Only in Hollywood movies does the villain pay the price in the end. In real life it’s usually ordinary people with no input into the original situation that end up paying with money, lost homes, careers and even their lives. The real losers of Enron were the employees, suppliers, customers and shareholders who had nothing to do with what was done in the boardroom. The residents of New Orleans had no say in the construction and maintenance of the levees protecting their city. You can come up with your only list.
11. The solution to this problem may not be the solution to THE problem
Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, states that
Today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions.”
Then he goes on to tell the story of the rug merchant and the rug with a bump in it. The rug merchant comes into his shop one morning and discovers a bump in his most precious rug. This is not to be accepted! So he picks up a stick and hits the bump which moves closer to the edge of the rug. He repeats the process and the bump inches closer and closer to the edge of the rug. Finally, with one hard strike, the bump comes out from under the rug and reveals itself to be a very angry cobra.
In 1900 New York City was facing a major pollution problem – they were drowning in horse excrement which caused health and environmental problems – you try disposing of millions of pounds of the stuff. The solution? Henry Ford and the automobile and trucks. No more horse excrement. Yes, the car was smelly but there wasn’t all that other stuff lying around. It took 60 years before people woke up to the effects of smog and we had the same problem to deal with as before.
Godzilla was the result of a “yesterday’s solution” – in his case, nuclear weapons that ended a war and then created a stalemate and today an ongoing nightmare. In solving the problem of Godzilla, there were again and again solutions created that beget their own problems.