Management Lessons from Movies, Chapter 2: Mule
“I never lie to any man because I don’t fear anyone. The only time you lie is when you are afraid” John Gotti
“Nothing personal, it’s just business” Otto Berman
John Gotti and Otto Berman were famous gangsters, and I thought their quotes were appropriate because of the topic of this post. We are discussing the management lessons of the Clint Eastwood movie “Mule”. Clint plays Earl Stone, an aging Korean War Veteran who is in his 80’s, broke and facing the foreclosure of his business. A chance meeting leads him to a job where all he must do is drive from one place to another carrying cargo. While he didn’t initially know what he was delivering, he was in fact a drug courier for a Mexican cartel. He was so good at driving and staying off the DEA’s radar that his loads grew exponentially, and he soon becomes the cartels top mule. His incredible success as mule earns him a party with the top boss who recognizes that his unorthodox appearance and approach made him a valuable “employee”. Unfortunately for the boss, his underlings believe they can do a better job,so they murder him and take over the cartel.
When we left Earl, his cartel boss was murdered and a new management team was installed.
The new team didn’t have the enlightened approach of the prior team and demanded that Earl do things their way, check in as scheduled and take routes they map out for him. When Earl balks at this new management approach, the head of the cartel tells his underlings they need to “crack down on Earl” because there is too much money at stake.
Haven't we all been subjected to "Theory X" management? If you are unsure what that is, here is an article I wrote on that topic: https://www.projectmanagementforum.net/blog/are-you-theory-x-or-y
Just as Earl is about to do a run for the new boss, he finds out that his ex-wife is very ill and is dying. He views this as a chance to do what is right and goes to see her. He completely ignores the cartel and they become frantic. Earl stays with his ex-wife until she dies, he attends the funeral and then he resumes the drug run. When the cartel hoods who were supposed to keep track of him find him, they beat him up. However, when they see the flier from the funeral they understand why disappeared and plead to the cartel boss for mercy. Senior management disagrees and wants Earl killed after the run.
Unfortunate for Earl, the DEA has finally caught up to him and they arrest him on the highway. At the trial Earl tells his attorney to not defend him, and he pleads guilty of all the charges. The last shot of the movie shows him raising day lilies in the prison garden.
So, what are the management lessons? The first is that innovators often frighten senior leadership. Earl’s methodology was unorthodox, but he was one of the most successful mules in the history of the cartel. Clearly, he was on to something. But top management did what they often do when confronted with an innovator – they micromanaged!
The second lesson is that innovators reject micromanagement! In this instance, Earl understood that the route and the protocols put in place by the cartel would not work, so he altered them and in doing so avoided being arrested. Senior management reacted to this by tightening up and demanding even more oversight! How many of you have seen this?
The third lesson is that people’s personal lives matter. When Earl’s wife was terminally ill, even the lower level thugs (front line management) realized that he had a legitimate excuse to disappear and pleaded his case to the cartel boss. In this case (and often in real life) senior management rejected the explanation. They did so because they could not allow any deviation from their plans as that may be perceived as a sign of weakness.
The final lesson is that everyone makes mistakes, and how you deal with those mistakes matters. Earl accepted complete responsibility for his actions and in doing so found the peace that he had been seeking his whole life.
The next movie I’ll discuss is a Sci-Fi classic – Aliens!
In researching this article, I came across the quote: “Nothing personal, it’s just business”. I was shocked that this was a mobster quote as I have heard it time to time in my career. The last time it was even directed at me! I was working for someone who wanted me to do something that I was displeased with. When I pointed out all the reasons why this thing was wrong, they accepted all my points but said that “they had to do what they had to do” and concluded with “don’t take it personal, it’s just business”. Now that I know it is a mob quote, it sounds about right!