In 1899, Joseph Conrad produced Heart of Darkness, a short novel ostensibly about Charles Marlow’s work as an ivory transporter in Africa. In the course of his work Marlow becomes obsessed with Kurtz, an ivory agent, notorious amongst the local population and the European colonials. This work is interpreted as a thematic exploration of savagery, racism and imperialism.
In 1979 the book was re-interpreted by Francis Ford Coppola as an epic war film set during the Vietnam War, named Apocalypse Now. It starred Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and Martin Sheen and follows Captain Willard (Sheen), sent on a mission to kill the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Brando) who is now considered to be insane. It was a troubled production and tales of the difficulties faced by cast and crew alike have entered the pantheon of Hollywood legend.
Inspired by Adrian McNeece’s prompting, this blogpost will look at the world of work through the lens of Apocalypse Now and seek to explore parallels and draw some lessons. Whether it is successful in this aim will, as ever, be down to you – my patient readers.
Like most projects in the workplace, Apocalypse Now is catalysed by a problem that goes right to the heart of the organisation. A once revered leader, carrying all the plaudits and paper qualifications of his trade, goes off the rails. Kurtz comes to feel himself untouchable and infallible, disregarding clearly defined operating models and infrastructural hierarchies. In so doing, he creates parallel and equally constrictive practices, inspiring fear and devotion in his subordinates in equal measure. His sense of expediency leads him to treat those around him as cheap currency. It’s all about results at all costs.
On the face of it, Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore shares many of the traits of the Kurtz-style character that so trouble senior leaders. However, as Sheen’s voiceover notes, he loves, and is loved by his “boys”. The high command tolerate his unconventional methods in part because of this, but also because he gets results and has a sense of the war as finite. Kurtz is trying to change the world through seismic events and ideology; Kilgore is engaged in a series of targeted yet smaller scale events as part of a larger whole. There is a place for idiosyncratic personalities within the workplace. Leaders should look to nuture their creativity, not stifle it, if they want them to be productive and aligned with the needs and aims of the organisation.
Charged with dispatching Kurtz, Willard goes on an interior and intellectual journey into the heart of darkness. It puts him at odds with his crew who are, without a clear sense of the purpose of their mission, by turns manic and introverted. Until disaster befalls them, Willard makes no overt attempts at leadership. In the workplace, leaders who internalise or intellectualise the issues confronting them, risk not carrying their teams with them at best and at worst, risk the development of a counter-culture that may be detrimental to success or embed itself to such a degree that it becomes an institutional issue in its own right.
All businesses and the people who work with and for them are on a journey, starting with hope and good intentions. With creativity, innovation, control and discipline applied in an enlightened way, there is every chance that successful outcomes will follow. However, obstacles will continue to be thrown our way. To push through requires adaptability, flexibility and agility whilst retaining at the core a proper sense of continued direction. Disillusioned, dissenting and disruptive renegades, who seek to derail or take us hostage for their own ends cannot be tolerated for that way madness lies.
Challenging the status quo and asking questions that reveal difficult truths does not fit into that model though, so we should encourage those who do so because they care, not simply because they can. So shine a light into the dark corners at the heart of your business, with hope. There is no way to tell that story without telling your own. And if the story really is a confession, then so is yours.