Leadership in the Movies:
Flight of the Phoenix

Managing generational clashes in the workplace

flight of the phoenix

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 1965 movie The Flight of the Phoenix produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, and staring James Stewart as Frank Towns and Richard Attenborough who plays the role of the navigator Lew Moran. I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis (so as not to spoil a great movie). The Flight of the Phoenix is currently online Click here for movie.

The movie describes the story of veteran pilot, Frank Towns, and his alcoholic navigator, Lew Moran, who work for a “crummy outfit” flying oil workers and cargo across the Sahara desert. On a routine trip, they run into a sandstorm which clogs the engines and Towns is forced to crash land the plane miles off course with no radio contact. The fatalities and casualties haunt Towns who logs the cause of crash as ‘pilot error’; and tensions begin to rise as it becomes clear that they have limited water and no prospect of rescue. On board is a young German aeronautical engineer, Heinrich Dorfmann, who proposes that they salvage the wreckage and rebuild the plane. This idea is treated with contempt by Frank Towns – “are you trying to be funny?” he says. It is clear that Town’s resistance is driven by mistrust of the new technocratic generation where “men like Dorfmann can build machines that can do Frank Towns job for him and do it better.” Towns is convinced by Moran to endorse the project but it is executed with mistrust and tension as the veteran Towns and the babyboomer Dorfman have on-going generational clashes which cause major delays and demoralise the team. The conflict reaches a critical moment when the young technocrat confronts the veteran – “who is in authority here?” Towns subordinates himself to Dorfmann, conflict is averted, the project is successfully completed and they fly to safety.

Much has been written about leaders understanding and mitigating generational conflict in the workplace. A seminal text on the subject, Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace
by Ron Zemike, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak, spells out the generational variance between veterans and babyboomers. These key generational characteristics can be mapped to Towns and Dorfmann.

Veterans versus Babyboomers

Those born prior to World War II and those whose earliest memories and influences are associated with that event

Hard times, war, depression, national reconstruction, mass production, global travel

Key generational characteristics
Traditionalists, value driven, solid, reliable, no nonsense, risk averse, consistent, uniform, enterprising, conformists, disciplined, past orientated/history absorbed, moral, respect law and order, command control leadership style, patriotic, family orientated

What baby boomers think of veterans:
Old farts, dictatorial, rigid, inhibited technological dinosaurs, narrow

Need to be valued, uncomfortable learning from youngsters

Frank Towns is very much part of this veteran generation. He is driven by strong traditional values of concern for his passengers and co-worker (compared to Dorfmann, “the dried up calculating , machine” who sees people as a project commodity). He reminisces about the past “I don’t know Lew. I suppose pilots are just as good now as they ever were but they sure don’t live the way we did. I can tell you that there were times when you took real pride in just getting there. Flying used to be fun… it really did… it used to be fun.” He has a no-nonsense-say-it-as-it-is manner (“do you think this is some kind of picnic?” he snaps at Dorfmann) and a command/control leadership style. Even with a slim chance of rescue, he routinely writes the daily captain’s log. He is self-confessedly rigid and set in his ways “I’ve been thinking about this.. and I guess old Frank Towns never could stand being told what to do , that’s all there is to it.” His generational idiosyncrasies surface: he needs to feel valued (Moran says to Dorfmann “I know it is difficult for you to get on with Frank Towns but you’ve got to understand, he needs to feel he’s doing something, you don’t leave him anything “) and he can’t stand being proved wrong by the young technocrat “that’s what really gets you about him… he always has to be right,” he complains.

Those born during or after World War II and raised in an era of extreme optimism, opportunity and progress

The space race, growth, expansion, stay-at-home mothers, new schools and technology colleges

Key generational characteristics
They think of themselves as stars of the show, optimistic – the world is to be shaped, careerists, workaholics, individualistic, economic achievers, engineering pioneers, tend to favour technical and production jobs, leading edge, future orientated, problem solvers, learners

What veterans think of babyboomers:
Upstarts, know-it-alls, self absorbed

Ask them don’t tell them, enjoy status and perks, grew up in the shadow of veterans and are always looking to prove themselves which they do through work dedication and driving innovation.

Again, these traits are clearly evident in the character of Heinrich Dorfmann. He is obsessed with status, achievement and career – he carries and reads his company trade magazine featuring his inventions and gloats about his brother’s role as Chief Analytical Physicist. He has very little time or respect for the veteran, Towns – he thinks Towns is “a little elderly to be flying without a co pilot” and publically criticizes him – “I told you there will be no difficulty building this aeroplane, I also told you it would require an outstanding pilot to fly it. The only thing outstanding about you, Mr Towns, is your stupidity” He works in a leading-edge field and is innovative (he fills the pipes with sand so they can bend without cracking), future-orientated and visionary (Towns writes “He’s right about one thing though, the little man with the sliderules and computers are going to inherit the earth and it’s kinda sad that Dorfmann won’t be there to see it but then I guess he doesn’t need to see it, he already knows it.” He is a self starter, making his calculations and assessments without being asked and he visualises the aeroplane and innovates as he goes along (the navigator Moran complains “There’s nothing down on paper, it’s all in your head”). He looks for solutions not problems (he frequently says things like “I see no other immediate problems…” and “I see no insoluble problems”); clearly he doesn’t view the fact that he has no experience building full-size aeroplanes as a problem. He is obsessional, focuses on process not people and looks for his entitlements (Towns admonishes him for this when he discovers Dorfman helped himself to extra water “If you think being some kind of boy wonder entitles you to other people’s water, you’ve got another think coming”). His generational idiosyncrasies surface: he is self-centred and egotistic even to the point of telling Frank Towns who has flown by “the seat of his pants in planes that were nothing more than bits and pieces before [Dorfmann] even went to school” how to pilot the plane and Towns assessment of him that “he isn’t even concerned about getting out of here, all he wants to do is see that thing fly and he doesn’t care who gets killed in the process,” seems to carry some accuracy.

In the modern workplace with its increasing generational diversity, a key leadership role includes the capacity to understand and manage this diversity and create the right conditions for effective cross-generational engagement. As Zemike, Raines and Filipczak says:

In times of uncertainty and anxiety, differences between groups and sets of people, even generations, become tension producing and potential flash points […] Different generations have.. unique work ethics, different perspectives at work, distinct and preferred ways of managing and being managed, idiosyncratic styles, … managing this melange of ages, faces, values, and views is an increasingly difficult duty.

Interestingly, natural leadership doesn’t come from Towns or Dorfmann who are stubbornly locked to their generational types, nor does it come from the passenger Captain Harris of the British Army who is a “right little organizer” and “goes by the book”, seeing the solution to their predicament as seeking external support (lighting fires, marching for help, negotiating with native raiders). Rather, the natural leadership comes from Moran who buys into Dorfmann’s vision and navigates around the generational conflict sparking between Towns and Dorfmann in order to see the successful completion of the project.

Let’s review some of the things Moran does to manage the generational conflict and get everybody working successfully together:

1. He sees the potential in the young Dorfmann’s ideas and plays a key role convincing a sceptical Towns of their merit
2. He understands the generational source of the conflict between Dorfmann and Towns and seeks to help each party understand the other’s point of view
3. He calls the dissonant behaviour, highlighting to both Dorfmann and Towns their negative behaviour and its impact
4. When the project comes to a standstill, he liaises between the two parties, listens to grievances and negotiates/facilitates a settlement by appealing to their needs
5. He tries to contain the dissonant behaviour by holding private meetings so as not to demotivate the others

There ia a currently a huge range of generational diversity in the workplace from near retirement babyboomers to the new millennial generation and leaders need to be skilful in managing and channeling this diversity to avoid the kind of destructive conflict that Towns and Dorfmann are locked in. . Observing how Moran handles the generational conflict in The Flight of the Phoenix can give some good pointers to leaders looking to improve their skills in this area and maximise team creativity and efficiency.

Look out for further articles in this series and check the leadership in the news archive for interesting articles on leadership and generational difference in the workplace.

Richard Kelly PhD.
Follow and feedback at New Twitter account