“Eye in the Sky” – a leadership challenge

I wrote this essay a couple months ago after watching “Eye in the Sky”.

Sunday afternoon was warm and muggy, so we opted for some movie time accompanied by Sweetwater 420 beer. Our movie selection was “Eye in the Sky”. I didn’t know much about the storyline and watched in anticipation as the plot unfolded. The movie contains many leadership challenges and character sketches and I found myself mulling over it in the days that followed. I present to you the observations and questions that popped into my mind. I found many interesting analogies to the decision making processes we encounter in the workplace. If you saw the movie, what did you think? What thoughts and emotions did it invoke in you?

The primary challenge in the movie is on first appearance a decision: go or no go. Underneath this main storyline I watched with increasing frustration the accurate representation of typical leadership characteristics and decision styles as new data surfaces in a stressful environment.

The main character was Powell a British military leader with one mission in mind : to track and capture a criminal. This task unfolded with multiple changes in course coming her way and she adapted nimbly. Utilizing new resources as needed to stay on course with the mission. At this time, when everything was going smoothly, all the leaders observing the process supported her with excitement and no reservations about her decision quality.

Suddenly, we were presented with a plot twist – similar to what happens sometimes in life and work – the risk level was immediately elevated. The criminal she was tracking to capture was now in the house with a person who was suiting up in a suicide vest. At this moment Powell’s mission switched from capture to kill. She had the resources on hand and made the call quickly to change her goal. But, and this is where it got interesting, the other leaders (who up to this point had been supportively watching) were suddenly paralyzed. Not only were they paralyzed, but they began to ask antagonistic questions, presenting one barrier after another.

Powell deftly maneuvered the “gaps”, you could call them, to move the team from the original goal of capture to a new goal of kill. She did this by logically presenting her case of sacrificing one to prevent the loss of 80+ others. Although this choice was one that was decided quickly by Powell, I watched with increasing frustration as she sought authority to execute the task. See, she didn’t have the authority to actually execute the mission. She needed permission from above. She also needed loyalty from below, from the man who had his finger on the trigger. The perfect example of a middle manager.

Those above her (as I mentioned Powell is a woman – a very tough one) continuously sought approval from layer upon layer of upper managers. They clearly knew that whatever action was taken would wind up on the front pages of newspapers. They needed to identify who would take the blame if the mission failed or was interpreted badly by society. This part of the film filled me with disgust. In my eyes, they were letting their egos get in the way of Powell completing her mission.

Around this time, the plot took another dramatic twist. Just after Powell received her approval to strike, a girl entered the scene and change the risk scenario once again. Now, here’s where I will acknowledge that military decisions are clearly different than most corporate decision. We are talking about balancing the value of human life. For the sake of analogy, though, please stay with me because I felt this part of the movie perfectly illustrated something that happens regularly in business decisions.

As the intensity around a difficult, risky decision climbs and we near closure, an analyst, or someone secretly opposed to a decision, throws out some new piece of data to derail the process. What often happens in business also happened here: the person responsible for executing the plan is asked to re-analyze the entire decision.

While the reanalysis was underway, we watched with frustration as the suicide bomber continued his preparations and the girl sold her bread in front of the house. Suddenly, the camera feed inside the house was lost – as often happens in business – we lose a data source and have less clarity in the ongoing decision analysis.

Simultaneously, the decision was taken to do something to change the risk profile – a man was sent to buy the bread. This decision represented a value call by the leaders. The life of the girl was more valuable than their man on the ground. We nervously watched his failed attempt to buy the bread followed by a chase which distracted everyone from the mission at hand.

After this distraction, the leaders were forcibly returned to the task of making a decision. Advisers weighed in. Having re analyzed the risk and political fallout – sacrificing one (it was likely the girl would not survive the strike) to potentially save 80+ people – all we’re in agreement with Powell’s plan to issue the strike.

The order was given and the drone pilot, with anguish written across his face, pulled the trigger. As the dust settled all watched in horror to see if the girl survived. She did, although, ultimately she perished due to her injuries.

Every single leader had mixed feelings about the result. They had accomplished their mission, but with collateral damage they all wanted to avoid. As I said before, this is very different from many business decisions but I observed a few productive and destructive leadership behaviors.

1. Flexibility – adapting quickly to a change in circumstance (risk profile) to proceed swiftly and cautiously toward an evolving goal.

2. Decisiveness – taking a decision versus causing delays by “referring up” (in this case all the delays had no impact on the final decision quality and result).

3. Challenging Intentions – some characters appeared to be taking an ethical stance when their true motivation was to stall the decision process as a power play. Their intention was not to improve decision quality or influence an ethical decision. It was simply to flex their power.

At the end of the movie no one celebrated, and all were exhausted by the ordeal. The most disturbing part was when the drone pilot was instructed to go home and sleep and be back in 12 hours for his next shift. What he needed was someone to talk with to process what he’d just done. A debrief, and then return fit for service.

Which reminded me of some advice I’d received recently triggered by a Paulo Coehko writing on defeat. Just as trees rest in the winter, so leaders and the teams they lead, need time to debrief, process, and rest before moving on to the next campaign or project. Perhaps, if we deliberately slow down between decisions, we could move more confidently and efficiently when it’s all on the line?


2 thoughts on ““Eye in the Sky” – a leadership challenge

    1. Awesome! Hope you can find some good Alt in Raleigh, but it might be tough to manage… 🙂 Look forward to catching up with you on my next trip to NC.


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