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Did Heartbreak Ridge Teach Us Anything About Low Performing Teams?

Do low performing teams aspire to be more or are they just a bunch of slackers?  Capitalist reader Scott chimed in on a comment thread with the following observation:

"There are two movies that kind of touch on this subject. "12 OClock High," which is an old WWII movie about bomber pilots, and Clint Eastwood's "Heartbreak Ridge." They kind of have the same plot -- under-performing group is perceived to be of lesser quality than another group. Demanding manager moves in. Temporary chaos and disgruntlement is replaced by sense of pride in ones work.

I think even among slacker business units people want to be successful. They aspire to more. In my experience people are more interested in "fair" than "nice." Though you don't have to be mean to be fair. You may see slacker's vote for perceived slackers in unskilled jobs (I'm guessing 16 year old movie theatre ushers aren't as interested in being driven to excellence as someone with a mortgage and a family may be), but I'm thinking you will consistently see the interactive managers who expect and deliver favorable results from and to their teams getting the winning votes once you get beyond that level."

For the kids reading this blog, check out the movie "Heartbreak Ridge" for a primer on what Scott's talking about.  I've added a clip for you to take a look at at the bottom of this point (email subscribers click through for that), but here's what I learned about low performing teams from watching Gunny Highway (the new leader) and the platoon in Heartbreak Ridge:

1.  Low performing teams initially try and drive away any leader who expects more.

2.  It takes a tough SOB to fight through that and not give up as a leader of a low performing team.

3.  The work units around the low performing team want the low performing team to suck.  It makes them look better.

4.  The new leader has to show a little compassion for the personal lives of the low performing team to really break through.

5.  The new leader has to fight for his team, and at times fight his team, to break through a culture of "sucking".  

6.  The new leader has to box in his team constantly, consistently and in many different ways to get a breakthrough.

7.  Once the team has success, the leader has to do a lot less.  The breakthrough means the formerly low performing team will start policing themselves.

The movie is an interesting take on acquiring a low-performing team.  It takes leadership to pull a low performing team out of the funk, but it can be done - it just takes tons of focus.  

Take a look and rent the whole movie sometime soon.  Lots of leadership lessons from Gunny Highway.


Matt Landrum

I had some management training at Santa Clara University. They showed many scenes from 12 O'clock High. Great movie.


It's funny but true that low performers try to drive away leaders who demand more. I think that leadership is about followership. About the leader satisfying the followers' expectations and scrutiny. Bad followers have bad standards of expectations and scrutiny. Hence they try to drive away good leaders.
You could lead more in my post, 'can we have some more of that sauce please' at

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