Leadership Lessons From the “Cuckoo’s Nest”
There is a great scene in the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” where Nurse Ratched, a tyrannical nurse on a psychiatric ward, forbids the patients from watching the World Series on TV. As a result, Randle P. McMurphy, a newly arrived patient who is not going to take this without a fight, begins announcing imaginary baseball plays as he watches a blank TV screen. Pretty soon most of the other patients have gathered around him, shouting and cheering on the invisible players. Believe it or not, this scene and the ones that follow it in the movie illustrate some very important lessons about leadership and how leaders can create the culture change they envision for their organizations.
The story begins when McMurphy arrives at the institution after faking insanity rather than serving out his prison sentence. He and Nurse Ratched immediately become adversaries as McMurphy challenges Nurse Ratched’s leadership and the “culture” she has created on the ward. Nurse Ratched, however, has no intention of changing her autocratic, controlling leadership, nor her techniques of humiliation, intimidation, and threats.
Note: Rest assured that I am not suggesting that your organization is analogous to a psychiatric ward (though sometimes it may feel like one)! Neither am I suggesting that leaders in your organization are tyrannical like Nurse Ratched or convicts like Randle P. McMurphy (though they may act like that at times).
So, what can we learn about how to effectively lead culture change from such an unlikely story? Here are three leadership lessons and how Randle P. McMurphy applied these leadership lessons:
- Successful organization culture change starts with strong, innovative leadership. When McMurphy arrived, he immediately and very consciously sought the role of leader. He saw a need for change in the “culture” and he filled the leadership void with passion, enthusiasm and excitement.
- Communicate a clear vision that gives people some clarity about what you want to create. In many ways, Randle was a visionary. He helped others see and experience a future unencumbered by rigid rules, limiting boundaries, and tyrannical leadership. This was his vision.
- During the culture change, provide opportunities for people to feel connected to others, to feel like they have some control over their circumstances, and that they matter. Before McMurphy arrived most of the patients were literally in their own “private worlds.” Randle accomplished several things in the short time he was there:
- He brought everyone together as a unified group,
- He gave the men courage to stand up for themselves and to take more control over their situation; and
- He was able to make everyone on the ward feel important and valued.
So the next time you embark on an organizational or culture change initiative, remember Randle P. McMurphy and the leadership lessons from the “Cuckoo’s Nest.”