Saving Private Ryan: A study of leadership

Jan. 1, 1999
I sat back in my seat, trying to get comfortable for the flight from Toronto to Vancouver. I like to use long trips to unwind and meditate. The businessman in the next seat was catching up on his professional reading. I glanced at the book`s title: Leadership Skills for the Modern Operational Manager. It was the Canadian version of another book about how to be a better leader - a ubiquitous problem that has reached worldwide, epidemic proportions.

Barry Polansky, DMD

I sat back in my seat, trying to get comfortable for the flight from Toronto to Vancouver. I like to use long trips to unwind and meditate. The businessman in the next seat was catching up on his professional reading. I glanced at the book`s title: Leadership Skills for the Modern Operational Manager. It was the Canadian version of another book about how to be a better leader - a ubiquitous problem that has reached worldwide, epidemic proportions.

I tried to steal a look at the book without becoming too obvious. The last thing I wanted was to get involved in a leadership symposium for the next four hours. Airplane food, my fear of flying, and a philosophical conversation on leadership do not mix well. The book was heavy and filled with rules and diagrams. I wonder if Eisen-hower or Patton prepared for war as much as today`s professionals prepare for business.

I sat back and chuckled internally. Over the years, I`ve read every book on leadership, from Steven Covey`s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to The Art of War by Sun Tzu. I would take notes and carry around flash cards to remember what they said, but I always confused the principles. I never seemed to be able to apply the leadership skills that seemed so logical in the books. I have the same problem with golf and tennis. The more I read, the more elusive my leadership skills became. One frustration after another led me to the age-old question: Are leaders born or made? After every seminar I attended, I would wonder if I could be like that particular speaker. Did I have the necessary self-esteem or personality? Was I destined to become a great dental leader? How about leading my staff? Or, could I even lead my next patient into dental nirvana? The flight carried me off to sleep. I dreamed I grabbed the book out of my neighbor`s hands and threw it!

"What are you reading?" I said. "Do you really believe you can become an effective leader by reading that encyclopedia? D`ya think Moses or Gandhi read that stuff? How difficult is it - really?"

My fellow passenger had the dumbest expression on his face, as if he were saying, "No - tell me!"

"Leadership just boils down to one thing - one simple thing," I said. "Every day, you are faced with a series of choices - decisions if you will. Should you do A or B? Sometimes the choice is easy and sometimes it`s difficult. Many of us just react without thinking, but leaders think. They make a very discerning, conscious choice, and then choose the best thing for all concerned. They make a moral choice. Most people just unconsciously decide - they make the expedient choice without ever stopping to think. These people are not leaders. Leaders consistently think and make the choice loaded with integrity. That is so rare a quality that people have no choice but to follow."

My seat mate smiled and, with sarcasm dripping from the corners of his mouth, said: "You can`t reduce all leadership down to the simplest thought."

"I`m trying to be practical," I explained. "You can refer back to the text every time a tough problem occurs."

I asked him if he had seen the film, Saving Private Ryan. Like many Steven Spielberg films, it was thought-provoking and filled with ideas. I particularly liked Tom Hank`s portrayal of Captain Miller. They should surrender the Oscar right now for his performance as a true-to-life leader. Essentially, Miller is a metaphor for leadership - although, granted, the pressure of war is more dramatic and intense than professionals face every day. But, there are many parallels.

Let`s dissect the character of Captain Miller. One thing, as I`ve said, is that a leader must be a thinker. He or she must be totally conscious at all times of his or her choices. Sometimes, those choices are not clear. How many times are we faced with tough decisions that are so paradoxical that we only can look up to the sky for answers? As leaders, we are alone in the "buck-stops-here" position. In the movie, Miller`s hand would shake uncontrollably. How often do we show symptoms of stress in private because we don`t know the answers, yet choices still must be made? Those choices will not make everyone happy, but they will be aligned with the mission.

Good leaders understand the mission. Jack Welch of General Electric says, "Leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion. Above all else, good leaders are open ... they go up and down and around their organization to reach people. They make a religion of being accessible." They inspire and persuade people toward the mission. They are teachers!

How ironic that, back home, Captain Miller was a teacher. He could have been a dentist. The author made him a teacher because a teacher best embodied the leadership skills that were necessary. Leaders are teachers. They must be able to articulate the vision clearly. And what is the vision?

For Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, the vision was to "get home." Home is a symbol of safety and security. The womb is Mother America. Captain Miller made the promise he would do whatever it took to bring the troops home. Ninety-five men under his command had died, and he felt the pain of every death. Yet, he never abandoned the mission.

Does your practice have a mission? What personal sacrifices are you willing to make to keep the promise that you made to the people who work in your practice and the people you work for? It`s important to note that Captain Miller`s mission, purpose, vision, or simply his intent was to bring everyone home. It was not a selfish intention. He gave up his life for a cause outside of himself.

Business leaders and professionals must understand that they can never hide their intent. Patients and staff, like sharks, can smell a drop of blood in an ocean. If a business is set up solely for the purpose of supplying the owner with power and money, it will not succeed in the long run. The Roman Empire eventually was brought to its knees because it was created as a means to powerfully control many cultures, while the great religions of the Western World - albeit through difficult times - survived because of the moral nature of their intent. The most important thing a leader can do is to create the mission and express it in every act.

Not every decision will be difficult. Captain Miller knew, for example, that he couldn`t risk his troops to save a little French girl. A sniper`s bullet found one of his men because he lost his direction when his compassionate and emotional self took over his rational self. There are times that you can`t give in to your heart if it means sacrificing the mission. A leader must know himself and be able to control his emotions - especially his desire to be liked!

At other times, the decision is more difficult. Miller`s decision to release the Nazi, as per the rules of war, came back to haunt him in the end. His men looked upon him with disbelief when he let the Nazi go. Max DePree, author of Leadership Jazz, writes: "Participative management is not democratic; having a say does not mean having a vote." In the end, it`s only one man whomust say, "This is it - this is what we are going to do!" Being a leader means you must be alone. A leader must understand his responsibility. Nathaniel Branden points out in his book, Self-Esteem at Work, that if Moses went up the mountain with a committee, he never would have come back.

Another thing Miller did was never show fear as he led his men into the unknown. A leader cannot lead anyone into a place where he himself is afraid to travel. How many business leaders and professionals constantly ask people to do things they never would do? How many dentists ask their patients to accept dental treatment that they would not do themselves? This is the trust factor. No leader can exist without trust, and that means he or she must be trustworthy. Again, citing Branden, reducing trust to its simplest fundamentals: "One tells the truth. One keeps promises. One honors commitments. One`s behavior manifests one`s professed values. One deals with people fairly and justly." The trust that Miller`s men had in him was palatable.

So, my traveling companion was befuddled. "You said that leadership boiled down to one thing. Yet, you mentioned many things - making conscious choices, thinking, knowing yourself, trust, acting alone, clarifying and expressing your mission, and being a teacher. That`s a pretty long list!"

I smiled and said with some resignation, "Yes, I guess you`re right. But when it comes down to making that singular choice, it just means a leader must be a better human."

"Well, I`m a nice fella, a good human being, so I guess I`m a pretty good leader," he said.

I laughed and replied, "Most men think they are good-looking, too! Did you know that when researchers asked students to rate their ability to get along with others, 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent? Ninety-four percent of college professors say they are doing a better job than their average colleague.

"Psychologists call this very human characteristic the `Lake Woebegone Effect,` after Garrison Keilor`s famous radio show sign-off from his fictional hometown, Lake Woebegone, `where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.` So, if you`re human, then you probably suffer from the `Woebegone Effect` that you are a great leader. Sorry, boss."

"Okay, I guess you`re right," he said. "So many people think they are leaders, and yet they fail to walk the talk. But just remember what happened to old Captain Miller in the movie - he died. Is that the fate of a leader?"

Now I had him, because the final scenes of the movie were so symbolic of Miller`s mission. Was death the failure of the mission? Hardly! Years later, we see Private Ryan standing with his own family at Miller`s grave. Ryan is home on American soil. Captain Miller died and so did many others - so that we may live. They died so we may live safely and securely.

Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the polio vaccine, once was asked what would make his life successful. He said, "To become a great ancestor." Isn`t that a great mission ... to have a legacy, quid pro quo? Captain Miller, like many of Homer`s heroes, left a legacy.

Whether you are a leader or a follower, the daily stresses of life will continue. The world needs its leaders in every field - its titans. Tom Hanks is a great actor because he plays "Everyman" so well. The world needs better humans, better leaders, and it is within the grasp of every man to be just that.

The plane hit a pocket of turbulence. I could feel my stomach quake. I eyed my neighbor and he eyed me. Words weren`t necessary - the social mirror conveyed our tension. My hand shook, and I thought of Captain Miller. The coffee cup on the tray quivered and fell over. My partner gasped. My hand shook.

The plane slowly leveled out and we eyed each other again. Tension eased toward comfort, but we knew it was transient and unstable. I am reminded of the first line of Scott Peck`s book, The Road Less Traveled: "Life is difficult." I sat back and closed my eyes to meditate, but my hand still shook. I guess, like Captain Miller`s, it will continue to shake until ...