Hidden Figures shares the true story of three African-American women who helped NASA successfully launch John Glenn into orbit in 1962. Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) were mathematicians. They worked in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center. In this time before computers, these women, along with others, were human “computers”. They solved complex equations to put the first astronauts safely into space. Consequently, their under appreciated leadership role was actually leading change.
The film is rife with lessons for leaders, including a few of the most impactful below. Warning: If you haven’t seen the movie yet, there are spoilers ahead.
Success of Individual Staffers = Success for the Whole Team
Head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) felt threatened by Katherine Johnson throughout the film. He disliked that his supervisor, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), had her check his work and was wary of the positive reputation she was making for herself.
Instead of embracing her talents and letting her brilliant work make the rest of their team shine, Paul pushed her down, fearing that his own job was in jeopardy. Finally, Al told him, “You know what your job is, Paul? Find the genius among the geniuses. We all get to the top together or we don’t get there at all.”
Next time you get that uneasy feeling that someone else on the team is outshining you, do a gut check. Ask yourself the hard question, are you feeling threatened? Are they helping the whole organization to perform better? Examine why you feel this way and reframe your perspective around the potential benefits of their performance. And consider how you can work together to get even stronger outcomes by leading change. Recognizing and supporting a team member’s talent can make you stand out as well. As the leader, remind the group that success for one can advance everyone.
Use Emotion to Get a Point Across
Mary Jackson was determined to go back to school to become an engineer. One thing stood in her way: required classes that were only taught at an all-white school. When she appeared before a judge to get permission to attend the school, she appealed to his emotions.
Mary researched him in advance and used the information to help him understand her plight. She reminded the judge that he was the first in his family to go to college and the first judge from his small town. She explained that she also wanted to be the first black female engineer. And that he would again be “the first” by being the one to grant her that access, thereupon leading change.
Next time you’re asking for something, go into the ask with a plan. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and try to understand what’s in it for them. Appeal to them on a human, personal level, as opposed to just professionally.
Permission is Not Always Required
Al learned that Katherine had been traveling a half-mile across the NASA campus to use the “colored” bathroom each day. He then took a sledgehammer to the sign that read “colored ladies room.” He proclaimed, “here at NASA, we all pee the same color.” Al didn’t go to his superiors and put the request through a chain of command. He knew his actions were for the greater good, therefore he just did it.
This idea doesn’t mean that you have carte blanche to do whatever you want or to disregard standard protocol. For most of us, government regulations are unalterable. Hence, there are situations when bending, even breaking the rules is the right path. In our Gettysburg Experience, we discuss that when people operate outside of the rules of an organization, we can usually divide them into two categories: mavericks and renegades. Mavericks are always working towards the overall good of the team. They are typically the ones leading change for the good of all. Renegades have their own goals in mind, which are often at the organization’s expense. When you’re in a situation like this, ask yourself who benefits: is it the whole team or just you?
This is the first in a three-part series on takeaways for leaders from the popular, Oscar-nominated film. Here’s Part II where we look at social capital, and Part III, where we consider Cultural Capital.