Why "Argo" is a great leadership movie

Late '70s fashion made a comeback in the drama "Argo," starring Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck. Jacqueline West was a Costume Designers Guild Award nominee in the period category.
Warner Brothers

(MoneyWatch) Everyone loved "Argo," a great caper movie that manages to celebrate Hollywood and patriotism at the same time. It's terrific entertainment but one of the most striking features of the film, the moment at which the tension really begins to ratchet up, is telling. It's when Tony Mendez, the CIA operative, has to make a decision: Should he obey or disobey a direct order to abandon his plan to get six American State Department officials out of Iran?

He disobeys, of course. Directly contravening his orders, he goes ahead and gets everyone out alive -- and, as the audience, we all cheer. If he had followed orders, there would be no tension, no excitement, no happy ending and no movie. But how many of us, I wonder, would have the same courage? How often do employees take the initiative and do the opposite of what they've been told, because it's the right thing to?

All the psychological evidence shows that, for the most part, humans are obedient. Milgram's experiment showed that, even where there is no reward for compliance and no punishment for non-compliance, roughly 65 percent of people follow orders even when they're ethically wrong. So Tony Mendez is highly unusual, in more ways than one.

It's easy to watch the movie and cheer but the truth is that companies badly need people who, when asked to do the wrong thing, will refuse. Banks needed people who would refuse to manipulate LIBOR, refuse to launder drug trafficking money or to sell mortgages to customers who couldn't afford them. Pharmaceutical companies need employees to speak up when products aren't being produced to a high enough standards. Hospitals need to hear from nurses and doctors who can see when their colleagues aren't doing their jobs.

We tend to call these people whistleblowers and to imagine that they're cranks and deviants. But they aren't: They are every company's early warning systems if the management has the intelligence to use them as such. They are the people who will make everyone feel proud when they have the courage to do what Tony Mendez did: Override a bad decision.

I enjoyed Argo and I'm pleased to see it receive so many awards. But I'd be happier still if we could take to heart its core message: Sometimes disobedience is the highest form of loyalty.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.