Leadership is hidden all around us

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There’s examples of leadership all around us, we just have to look. Even in the entertainment industry we can watch characters and learn from their leadership styles.

Recently a group of us got together to watch the 2016 movie Hidden Figures which depicts the true story of three African American women who were influential in NASA’s mission to send a man into space in 1961.

The main protagonist, Katherine Johnson, was considered a mathematical genius. She worked at NASA and became the first African American women to be a part of the Space Task Group where she calculated complex calculations for the launch and landing of John Glenn.

While Katherine is an amazing women and leader in her field, our group really learned more from the influential “bosses” in her life.

Dorothy Vaughan leads NASA’s West Computing group which was where the African American mathematicians worked as “computers” on various temporary projects. Dorothy was working as the fill-in supervisor because the group wasn’t allowed to have permanent supervisor positions, so she worked as a supervisor without the title, pay or recognition for it.

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) leads NASA’s West Computing Group in the film Hidden Figures.
(Photo via IMDB/Twentieth Century FOX)

Dorothy’s leadership style is very much, leading by example. One of her goals throughout the film is to advance her career and become the first African American supervisor at NASA. But not only is she concerned with advancing her own career, but also the careers of everyone that works for her.

For example, Dorothy discovers that NASA is moving towards using IBM machines, which can finish calculations significantly faster than the human “computers” can, essentially pushing out her entire team from their positions at NASA. Instead of accepting that technology would outpace her employees, she decided to make her team invaluable to NASA. So Dorothy puts in extra hours outside of her normal responsibilities in order to teach herself and her team how to program and code the IBM machines when even the machine’s engineers couldn’t successfully do it.

Dorothy not only leads by example but she inspires her team. Dorothy is a great example of leadership because she doesn’t lead simply because she has the title to do it. Instead, she leads with integrity and perseverance, working against all odds.

Another example of leadership in this film is Al Harrison. His leadership style is a complete juxtaposition against Dorothy’s but another important example. Al is the director of the Space Task Group and his leadership style is extremely goal-oriented. Al is forced to deal with direct orders from the president to successfully send a man into space and bring him back safely.

Al Harrison (Kevin Costner)
is the director of NASA’s Space Task Group in the film Hidden Figures. (Photo via IMDB/Twentieth Century FOX)

So Al’s number one priority is to figure out how to get a team to do that as quickly as possible. Katherine joins his team because Al needed a computer who could handle impossible math and Katherine was the one to do it. He is so goal oriented that he is oblivious to the prejudice and racism happening on his team.

Compared to Dorothy, who is a maternal figure to aspiring women, Al is an aggressive boss who demands success. He intimidates his team but he also inspires them. He is able to get a team to dedicate themselves entirely to the cause. He is also one of the unifying forces throughout the movie to look past racial tensions.

For example, when Al finds out that Katherine spends hours each day running to the only colored bathroom on the NASA campus, he demands societal norms change by removing the “colored bathroom” sign from the wall, stating “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”

While these two characters have extremely different leadership styles, they are both able to inspire a team of people to commit to a cause and end up successful. Dorothy secures jobs for her team working with the IBM and Al leads his team to successfully send a man into space.

4 Comments on “Leadership is hidden all around us”

  1. I really enjoyed your group’s presentation. I think this movie definitely shows how some people, like Dorothy, are natural-born leaders but aren’t given the platform to reach their full potential. I was wondering what type of leader you think Katherine is? Throughout most of the movie, she is rather timid in advocating for herself, but does this mean she lacks leadership or is just deliberate when exercising her voice?

    1. Hi, Allie! Thanks for your comment. I don’t think Katherine lacks leadership, exactly; however, I do think that when it comes to her job, she mostly focuses on giving her best to her tasks and being a part of a team, not necessarily on leading and organizing other people’s efforts.

      That said, I think she does exhibit certain leadership qualities throughout the film. For example, I would argue that her role as a single mother is a leadership role, as she works hard to be a good role model for her children and to provide for them even when she herself faces a lot of obstacles and challenges in her job. She makes sure to give her children hope, even when she knows that reality doesn’t always feel so hopeful, so that they’ll feel inspired to achieve their own dreams one day.

      I also think that Al Harrison wouldn’t have been as powerful of a leader without Katherine’s influence. He’s a demanding and effective supervisor in general, but he only recognizes the obstacles Katherine is facing when she presents him with them. For example, in one scene, he criticizes her for taking such long bathroom breaks, and she responds with an emotional and powerful outburst about how unfairly she’s being treated. Later on, when another employee at NASA, Paul, tries to keep her from attending confidential briefings, she urges Al to give her the clearance necessary even though women aren’t allowed to attend the meetings, saying something like “…you’re the boss, you just have to act like one.”

      Thus, I think Katherine exhibits certain leadership qualities, like being outspoken and trying to advocate for herself (and perhaps others in the process), but in general, I think she falls more into the latter category you mentioned–that is, she’s deliberate in exercising her voice and focuses on being a strong asset to her team more than anything else.

  2. Tynin, Daneel, and Vandana,

    I really enjoyed your presentation. Though I haven’t yet seen the film, it definitely has many leadership lessons that can be applied in real life. It’s also important to note that it’s a great that the depiction of women in color in a position of leadership is something we should all see a bit more often.

    What I did take away was that everyone can be a leader in their own way. One doesn’t necessarily have to be extroverted to assert leadership qualities. Definitely going to watch the film now!

    1. Thanks, Lysandra!

      I agree; we could all stand to see women of color in leadership roles on screen a bit more often. I hope you enjoy the film!

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