This is part of a series of articles that combine two great passions of mine: leadership and movies. The series seeks to explore leadership through the lens of selected movies. Today we are looking at the 1960 movie Tunes of Glory directed by Ronald Neame and featuring Alec Guinesss as Major Jock Sinclair and John Mills as Lt. Col. Basil Barrow (Battalion Commander). I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis (so as not to spoil a great movie).
Tunes of Glory is set in a post-war battalion in Scotland. The acting colonel and commanding officer is Major Jock Sinclair who was promoted through the ranks. Sinclair is a colourful, extroverted and laissez faire leader who is highly popular with his men (the commissioned and non commissioned officers as well as the regular soldiers). The film opens with the announcement that brigade has appointed a new permanent commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Barrow, who is “bright upstairs” and whose forebears led the battalion. The film charts the progress of the new leader’s first few months struggling to change the culture of the battalion back to a pre-war ideal and coping with a second-in-command, Major Jock Sinclair, who is aggrieved that he was not appointed the post of Commanding Officer and is out to sabotage the new leader – “It’s not right, it’s not fair, it isn’t […] They had no right to put him in above me. It makes me angry…very very angry […] This is my battalion… I am acting Colonel I should be Colonel and by this hand I bloody well will be Colonel […] It is my opinion he won’t be colonel for very long.”
The two men are poles apart: Barrow is establishment, university educated and sponsored by Brigade, Sinclair is a self-made man who rose through the ranks (“bootboy” and “bandboy”); Barrow is an authoritarian leader (a “stickler for detail”, relying on regulations, compliance, standards and needing things to be exact), Sinclair is a laissez faire leader (popular, turning a blind eye, making the rules up as he goes along, focusing on outcome rather than procedure and paternalistic – calling his men “my babies”). The division becomes very personal, conmbative and splits loyalties among the men which results in fatal consequences for both Barrow and Sinclair.
The tragic events could have been avoided if Lt. Colonel Barrow had more leadership experience. Much has been written about the critical importance of the first few months being the make or break of your new leadership assignment particularly if there are awkward predecessors to deal with who are blocking and sabotaging your path. Here are four things that Lt. Colonel Barrow failed to do as a recently appointed leader that directly contributed to his downfall.
1. He did not build coalitions
In The First 90 Days, a seminal text on this subject, Micheal Watkins devotes an entire chapter to the importance of new leaders building coalitions. Watkins argues that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your authority is enough. Clearly Lt. Colonel Barrow fell into this trap. He thought his educational background, seniority, executive endorsement and family connections were enough to secure authority and respect. He did not build any coalitions and ignored the alliances and divisions that were forming around him. As Watkins says, when you are new to a leadership role, it is important to do a full stakeholder analysis and identity support, map networks and patterns of deference and/or defiance and to deal with them. Barrow had many influential supporters including Captain Jimmy Cairns (Battalion Adjutant), Major Charles Scott (Battalion Executive Officer), Captain Eric Simpson, RSM Riddick. These clearly outweighed Sinclair’s two outspoken cronies Major ‘Dusty’ Miller (Mess President) and Captain Alec Rattray; but Barrow failed to cultivate these relationships and antagonized his supporters. He even let 2nd Lt. David MacKinnon ally himself with Sinclair and tip the balance of power and influence toward Sinclair. The new leader failed to deal with Sinclair – he did not “negotiate success” with him, he did not set boundaries, expectations, empathise with him, talk about how they were to work together, plan the transition (all Watkins’ terms). He simply ignored him. At the end of the film, the apologetic Barrow puts misplaced trust in a man who is openly out to destroy him.
2. He had entrenched ideas of cultural change which he sought to rapidly impose without input from others.
Watkins calls this “one best way” thinking. He never consulted with colleagues or attempted to build a shared vision or secure buy-in. Kristine Maudal and Even Fossen in a recent Huffington Post article New as a Leader? Avoid These Three Common Mistakes identifies this as one of the commonest mistakes new leaders make. As they argue, “if you do not take the necessary time to get buy-in, you will leave the team in a vacuum. Be enthusiastic — but also realistic. The more time spent involving your team in the beginning of the process, the easier it will be to execute and move the team forward later on. “ It is also important as leader to understand the complexities of cultural change. As Everett Rogers identifies in Diffusion of Innovations, people react to change differently from innovators and early adopters who are willing to change (such as Captain Simpson) to laggards and resistors (such as Major Sinclair). As a leader it is important to have different influencing tactics to secure buy-in. As Kristine Maudal and Even Fossen also identify, it is vital to observe the culture at work before you attempt to change it – to determine which cultures are enabling your strategic vision and which are getting in the way and blocking it. On the issue of change, Micheal Watkins as well as other leading change specialists such as John Kotter, talk about the importance of securing “quick wins” so that people quickly see the benefits of the new change and become champions of the change process and help you manage the critical voices.
3. He avoided taking the necessary decision.
We are brought in as leaders because our sponsors think we have the right qualities, experience and capabilities to take the necessary decisions to move the organisation toward success. Barrow made the wrong decision of not disciplining Sinclair for striking a uniformed Corporal in public. Barrow reasons with Major Scott that “Commanding a batallion is a question of compromise, keeping a team together” but by not standing up to Sinclair on a crucial decision, Barrow lost respect among his remaining supporters and allowed the saboteur and socially engineering Sinclair to gain the upper hand which ultimately led to Barrow’s downfall. The film deals very openly with the theme of popularity versus making the right decision. When Major Scott is asked his view by Colonel Barrow concerning the court martial of Sinclair, Scott sides with disciplining his friend and fellow office saying “It won’t make you very popular I’m afraid” to which Colonel Barrow (rightly) retorts “That’s the fate of a commanding officer. I hope that won’t sway me from doing my job properly.” Later Barrow veers from this position and alienates himself from his own supporters. Kristine Maudal and Even Fossen identify ‘treating leadership as if it were a popularity contest’ as another common mistake that new leaders make. They say it is essential that you focus on gaining respect rather than popularity and that this is achieved by “being predictable, clear in your communication and by your ability to make the necessary decisions.Even if those decisions are not popular for everyone.” They rightly say that unpopular decisions are usually supported especially if collaboration and communication is employed by the leader building up to the decision.
4. Barrow mixed his personal life with organisational life.
Colonel Barrow’s life was broken. He is separated from his wife and his experiences in a prisoner of war camp weigh on him. As he confides with his adjutant, “When I was in the prison camp, they nearly drowned me… The only thing that pulled me through was the thought that one day I’d come back and sit in the middle of that table as colonel of this battalion, like my grandfather and his father before him, only I was going to be the best of the lot […] I was rather lonely.. I think that was why I was looking forward to this job.” Of course it is inevitable (and some argue necessary) that leaders should allow their values and defining moments to shape their leadership style; but it is vital that we do not view a new leadership appointment as a fix for disappointments that have gone on in our personal lives or as a vehicle to revenge or repay colleagues who have upset us along the way. Modern leadership is not about the lone genius, it is more about the enabled team. Leaders have a professional role to play and their personal life and personal grievances should not get in the way of their duties and responsibilities as leader.
This movie can teach newly appointed leaders a lot about how to transition successfully into a new leadership role. It is essential that new leaders build coalitions, understand the culture before they seek to change it, focus on building consistency and respect rather than courting popularity and leave their personal agendas and grudges at home.
Look out for further articles in this series.
Richard Kelly PhD.
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