Are Your Managers Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight?: Sean Connery’s Lessons in Leadership

 For most of his 50+ year film making career, Sean Connery has entertained audiences by repeatedly playing one type of character. Dashing, unpredictable, unmanageable to be sure, we are not quite sure he is a hero, but we are glad he works for our side. Great stuff for the silver screen but not much of a leadership model. Ironically, his greatest professional honor, an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, came while playing the consummate team player, Officer Jimmy Malone in the 1987 movie version of “The Untouchables.”

In this film Connery’s character assumed the role of “leadership coach” for the young, passionate but naïve Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner. In what may be Malone’s most memorable scene, he delivers a brief soliloquy on how Ness can best deal with his arch enemy, Al Capone…

“You wanna know how you do it? Here’s how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”


                             Officer Jimmy Malone, The Untouchables, 1987

Throughout the film, Officer Malone offers the younger Ness an ongoing stream of this plain speak on how to deal effectively with his foes. In one instances he delivers his message with the aid of a classic rhetorical question when a gangster draws a knife and attempts to stab Ness and winds up shot dead in the process. “Isn’t that just like a #@&**#?,” he asks, “Brings a knife to a gun fight!”

Could any message be clearer? If indeed we do need a translation, the Urban Dictionary offers this… ‘Bringing a knife to a gun fight- The act of taking an amount of any substance to a gathering which is obviously insufficient.’ (This site also offers to sell you T-Shirts, coffee cups and fridge magnets emblazoned with this saying. I’ll leave decisions on such offers to your judgment!)

Last week I was reminded of this later bit of leadership counsel from Officer Malone in an exchange I was having with officials at my son’s college. It seems that a piece of equipment my son borrowed from the school last spring was noted as damaged upon its return. I was made aware of this situation when I went to pay his fall tuition and was barred from doing so by a flag in his record indicating that the damage needed to be paid for before he would be allowed to register.

I contacted my son who said he was aware of the damage and noticed it when he originally picked up the piece of equipment. Since it did not affect the functionality of the equipment, he didn’t pay any further attention. Unfortunately he should have brought the damage to the attention of the department personnel when he borrowed the equipment. They didn’t see the issue until the equipment was returned and the cost of repair was $120.

Based on my son’s explanation, I did not see that we should bear the full cost but also recognized that the department had nothing to go on either except the testimony of one of their employee’s. I proposed to the supervisor that we split the difference equally since we had on our hands what amounted to a “he said, he said” situation. The supervisor replied by saying he was not authorized to make such an arrangement. This is where Officer Jimmy Malone’s words came back to me in a flash of recognition, “Isn’t that just like a #@&**#? He brings a knife to a gun fight!”

At that moment the supervisor probably felt as though he was standing there naked as I blurted out, “You are kidding right, you cannot make a decision on what amounts to a $60 transaction?” Two levels of management later I was able to conclude the conversation with the department director agreeing to my proposal!

It really doesn’t matter the name of my son’s school and it doesn’t even matter that it was a school, it could just as easily have been a manufacturing company’s service department, and the lesson would have been the same.

We ask our managers to lead, to inspire, to direct others in producing results of all kinds and yet we limit their authority in ways that leave them humiliated in front of their charges or the customer. These very same people, who, in their private lives, can purchase automobiles worth thousands of dollars, enter into mortgage arrangements for hundreds of thousands of dollars; bring children into the world without asking our permission…need our approval for trivial transactions. Why?

Before you get all “Sarbanes Oxley” with me or “but, but, but you don’t understand,” just stop! Whatever you are going to say next…that…that right there that you were going to say…is craaaaaap!

Engagement and power are inseparable. If our managers are dis-empowered how can we expect their engagement at anything other than a compliance level? Why would we ever expect them to inspire or be inspired themselves?

  • Where have we ‘hog-tied’ our managers and are wondering why they under perform?
  • If you are a manager; where are you constrained by practices that do not seem to respect your abilities to make sound choices, and you are putting up with it?



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