Leadership in the Movies:
An Officer and a Gentleman

Developing Leaders

officer and a gentleman

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 select movies. Today we are looking at the 1982 movie An Officer and a Gentleman directed by Taylor Hackford and featuring Richard Gere as Aviation Officer Candidate Zack Mayo. I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis (so as not to spoil a great movie).

The film is set in a naval Aviation Officer’s Candidate School (AOCS) and follows the story of Zack Mayo who joins the 13 week programme after graduating to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a navy pilot. Although widely considered a love story, the film contains some powerful lessons on becoming a leader and developing leaders as Mayo, the “slick little hustler”, comes head-to-head with the drill sergeant.

The core takeaway from this movie is that developing good leaders requires two fundamental constituents: a compelling vision from the aspiring leader and an early exposure to a leadership programme managed by dedicated resources experienced in developing leaders.

Personal Mastery

Paula Pokrifki, a girl whom Zack meets during the training asks him “So do you think you will make it all the way to getting your wings?” “Who knows?” he replies, “Guys a lot smarter than me have been dropping out like flies.” Her response gets to the heart of personal mastery and visualisation: “You know you’ve got to say you can do it… you’ve got to programme yourself… it will happen… you’ve got to see yourself making it.” Peter Senge and others call this personal mastery – “people with high levels of personal mastery are continuously expanding their ability to create the results in life they truly seek”, writes Senge. Personal mastery is about having a realistic understanding of where you want to be (your personal vision or what Michael Ray calls “the highest goal) versus where you are now (your current reality) and how to bridge the aspirational gap. This widely applied formula has its origins in the work of Robert Fritz. In his seminal book, The Path of Least Resistance, Fritz highlights two components that make up the creative process of formulating a vision:

1. A vision of the results you want to create
2. A clear view of the reality you now have

The gap, or ‘discrepancy’ as Fritz calls it between what you want (your vision) and what you have (the current reality) is a constant tension (Fritz refers to it as a structural tension) that is a creative process generating energy for change. Fritz advocates starting with the vision “the best place to begin the creative process is at the end.” A vision, Fritz writes, can help you “organize your actions, focus your values, and clearly see what is relevant in current reality.” Warren Bennis uses an excellent example of mountaineers who plan the ascent by looking first at the summit and then work out ways to get there – “Mountain climbers don’t start climbing from the bottom of the mountain. They look at where they want to go and work backward to where they’re starting from.” Zack’s personal mastery and vision was formulated in his early years. The movie traces this through the use of flashback (Zack’s defining moments include his mother’s suicide and living with his alcoholic and “hole chasing” father in the Philippines). His compelling vision to become a navy aviation officer prompts him to turn his back on this shadowy past. The same compelling vision drives him not to DOR (“Drop on Request”) when antagonised by Drill Sergeant Emil Foley (“You can kick me out of here but I aint quitting “ he screams at him).

Formal Leadership Development

The other constituent to effective leadership development is the organisation’s strategic approach to developing its leaders. The modern approach is to blend formal “bootcamp” leadership training with other interventions such as coaching, mentoring, work-place learning, observational/shadowing and early leadership assignments. Class 1581 are all aspiring leaders on a thirteen week leadership development programme instructed by Gunnery “Drill” Sergeant Emil Foley.; Foley is a “drill” sergeant who uses a standard script when drilling the candidates – such rehearsed phrases as “I expect to lose half of you.. I will use every means necessary fair and unfair to trip you up, expose your weaknesses as a potential aviator and as a human being. Understand?” This is a stock phrase which generations of candidates have heard. He is perceived as a rigid trainer who plays by the book – indeed when Zack thinks Foley has discharged his best friend Sid Worley he snaps at him, “Can’t you bend your goddam rules for once?” In point of fact, Foley doesn’t play by the rule book and adopts a highly unorthodox approach to developing the class. Training these aspiring leaders is not a mere process for him: he acutely observes each candidate (he registers Sid has complexes to do with the death of his brother, that Seeger has issues to do with paternal rejection and Zack doesn’t give a “shit about anybody else”). He diligently researches into their backgrounds, assessing their potential to be aviators. He also tests them by looking for the “flaw in your character that comes out under stress.” Seeger lacks body strength but he sees in her the potential (“she’s got more heart and more character than you’ll ever have,” he says to Mayo), he is prepared to overlook her weakness and focus on her strength. Likewise with Mayo, clearly Foley knew about Mayo’s profiteering activities, he only exposes them when Mayo refuses to help a fellow candidate, Foley intuitively links it to issues of trust: “you don’t give a shit about anybody else but yourself and everybody in your class knows it. Do you think they will trust you behind the controls of a plane that they’d have to fly in?” he reasons with him. Foley instinctively understands that to be officer material, you need more than self-drive, you need to be able to inspire others and cultivate trustworthiness. Foley does what every good leader-developing-leader does, he focuses on potential and not on personality. He could have dismissed all of these candidates for violations and underperformance; instead, he gives them chances to prove themselves.

There are powerful lessons here for all of us involved in the development of leaders: connect with the aspiring leader’s vision/attitude, focus on potential, park personal feelings, eliminate status, focus on behaviour, observe before challenging and dare to be unorthodox. Some debate exists concerning the mix of these two constituents. Warren Bennis, famed for On Becoming a Leader, advocates self-directed leadership arguing that “no one can teach you how to become yourself, to take charge, to express yourself, except you.” Other commentators such as John Adair, famed for How to grow leaders, sees a role for third parties to grow and develop leaders. If you have a well-intentioned and experienced LD specialist with the qualities of Foley who focus on potential they can help emerging leaders to discover the disenablers and blindspots that deter the attainment of a goal (Foley never told Mayo how to be a leader, he outlined the competences of a navy aviation officer and enabled Mayo to see that his isolationism and lack of trust were blocking his path). Although third parties can’t generate attitude and vision for you (Bennis), they can help you prioritise and realise your vision by offering timely feedback and coaching on the steps required to accomplish your goal. In the end Mayo recognizes and acknowledges the role that Foley played in supporting his vision when he tells him “I wouldn’t have made this if it weren’t for you”.

Look out for further articles in this series and check the leadership in the news archive for interesting perspectives on developing leaders.

Richard Kelly PhD.
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