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business education MBA, BusinessWeek, Harvard Business School, Melbourne Business School, Vlerick Leuven Gent, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Business Lessons from La-La Land

(published in BusinessWeek, Sept 2010)

You don’t need to go to B-school to learn the fundamentals of management. They’re as inexpensive as a DVD, and as close as your own TV.

You can never afford to stop learning in business, but where do you go to get cutting-edge insight into effective negotiation, team-building, or entrepreneurship? Do you really need to invest time and money in an MBA program? Or should you just grab a Coke and a bucket of popcorn and head for the movies?

This fall Gordon Gekko will be back on our screens in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to the 1987 film Wall Street. Given the mood of the times, he’s unlikely to be quite as assertive about greed being good as he was in the first film, although don’t expect him to be signing up for the Harvard oath of ethical behavior any day soon. However, watching Gekko in action doesn’t really tell you much more than how to get on the fast track to a federal penitentiary. To find the really effective teachers, you need to look in slightly less obvious places.

Want guidance on how to negotiate the best deal, for example? Watch Don Corleone use a beautiful mix of subtlety and steel in The Godfather as he talks his way out of the corner the other crime families have backed him into. Notice in particular his insistence on team solidarity at all times, reinforced by slapping heir apparent Sonny around the face when he steps out of line. Or for simple steel, you could opt for the new Don, Michael, taking a strong line with a difficult senator (although it’s perhaps best not to try framing your opposite number with murder as a matter of day-to-day business policy).

In fact, once you get away from obviously business-oriented films like Glengarry Glen Ross, Citizen Kane, and even The Devil Wears Prada, cinema can pretty much show you how to get anything done. Need to shape a team from scratch to tackle a formidable challenge? Then shave your head and dress like Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven. Looking for tips on how to make best use of radically new technology within a restricting corporate environment? Why not consult billionaire magnate Tony Stark for the cost of renting Iron Man from your local DVD store.


Of course, the problem about doing this on your own is that it can be all too easy to get carried away. You catch one too many screenings of Casino and the next thing you know, you’ve put the head of your client in a vise because he won’t sign a new contract. Wait to be rapidly invited to clear your desk and vacate the building. So it may come as welcome news that guidance is now on hand from academics at some of the world’s top business schools.

Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile), for example, has decided that classic films can teach almost as much as a traditional case study. Professor of management practice Michael A. Wheeler uses the courtroom drama 12 Angry Men to teach effective negotiation strategies, looking at how the main character played by Henry Fonda gets his way by avoiding open conflict, building alliances, and picking off opponents one by one.

At the Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School (Vlerick Leuven Gent Full-Time MBA Profile) in Belgium, professor Marc Buelens puts his MBA students through an even more dramatic cinematic experience with a course based around the Tom Hanks film Apollo 13. Buelens shows how Gene Kranz, the flight director on the mission played by Ed Harris, assembled and managed a team that achieved the seemingly impossible task of bringing the stricken spacecraft and three astronauts home safely. “The movie shows how leadership and decision-making interplay with each other,” he says. “Kranz moves from pure rationality, clinically analyzing what the problem is and what has caused it, to motivating the team through emotional intelligence, focusing everyone on the single goal of saving the crew.” The film also demonstrates how powerful language can be as a leadership tool. No one who has heard Ed Harris proclaiming that failure is not an option is likely to forget it in a hurry. Not bad for embedding a lesson in students’ minds.


In Australia, the Melbourne Business School also employs fact-based movies as teaching aids. One of its professors uses the film Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, to illustrate what can be achieved with few resources, while another shows the power of collective bargaining through the World War II classic The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, some of its academics have abandoned cinema verité altogether to get students thinking well and truly outside the box. Blade Runner, The Bourne Identity, and even the animated film Chicken Run have all been used to get creative juices flowing on campus.

Whether shrinking attention spans will undermine the use of lengthy movies remains to be seen. Perhaps the next development will be to learn business lessons from TV. The Apprentice and HBO’s How to Make It in America would be obvious candidates, although those preferring a more aggressive approach might opt for one of the cable network’s earlier hits, The Sopranos. And if you just can’t wait to get the job done and believe that delegating is for wimps, there’s always 24. Jack Bauer as corporate CEO?

Let’s face it, there’s nothing that man can’t achieve, and he’ll only need one day to do it.


About symondsgsb

Matt is chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world's outstanding business schools. He is an internationally recognised business and graduate school expert, consulting to the world’s top business schools, and has written for many of the world’s leading publications including : Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, BBC, Newsweek, CNBC, America Economia, Washington Post, The Independent, Boston Globe, Handelsblatt, 21st Century Herald, South China Morning Post, Vedomosti, San Francisco Chronicle, Expansion, Beijing Daily. Matt was Co-Founder of the QS World MBA Tour Matt is co-author of Getting the M.B.A. Admissions Edge, a B-school admissions bestseller sponsored by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. His new individual school guides will be available in the fall.


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