Blog: If The ‘Highway’ Is Not An Option – It Actually Is


If The ‘Highway’ Is Not An Option – It Actually Is

For employees stuck to an oppressive boss, taking the highway is always an option. Leaders must revisit their management style – to keep people engaged and motivated.
If The ‘Highway’ Is Not An Option – It Actually Is

US Navy SEAL Lt. Shane Wolfe, is a tough boss (not unlike some we ourselves encounter in our work-life!) Played by the beefy Vin Diesel, in the movie The Pacifier, Wolfe always insists, ‘we are going to do this my way, no highway option’.

A familiar line? Okay, maybe not in so many words! But it’s just the kind of arrogant, bully-boss statement – said, or unsaid but implicit – few want to hear.

Maybe it works for the SEALS, but isn’t a great style in day-to-day management. Unless the circumstances are so extreme that they require temporary suspension of professional rights, like in a crisis.

By insisting that things be done his way, exclusively, without an ‘opt-out’, Lt. Wolfe permanently demonstrates a Directive leadership style. Simply put, he:

  • pulls rank (read, throws weight) – reducing the unit to a one-person show
  • blocks the team’s opportunity to challenge up and debate – thereby reducing them to mere doers, and
  • takes unfair advantage of the employees’ dependence on their job – not everyone can quit at will!

Now, let’s not underestimate Lt. Wolfe and damn him for being what like Hitler. He is a Navy SEAL leader with an enviable track record of operational successes behind him (except for one occasion around which the story of The Pacifier revolves)! Technically very sound, super efficient, he knows every tool of his trade and uses them optimally. In short, he is among the best in the business. Like many leaders we know!

So why then, does his super-successful leadership style flop miserably in the movie? Easy. The team, and the circumstances, are different, but Lt. Wolfe stays the same!

Leadership styles need to vary, by situation, by individual, by culture. No one-style can fit all. Lt. Wolfe discovered this, to his horror and frustration. Applying his military directive management style it to his new team – the children in his care just…failed. Even Garry, the duck, openly disobeyed his ‘orders’!

Ponder a moment. How often have we come across this kind of leadership style? How often have we been the hapless doer whose creativity, wisdom and voice has been squashed under the pressure from ‘above’? When access to the highway would extract a high toll. How often has a leader failed because of applying an inappropriate leadership style?    

Any singular leadership style results in a process:

- initially, there’s compliance: people do as they are told. Then fatigue sets in leading to…

- internal rumbling: grumbling; people expressing their feelings to themselves and to anyone with a sympathetic, but safe, ear

- sneaky behaviour: people will do what they want to – sneakily or ‘under the radar’

- outright rebellion: the route to the highway cannot be blocked permanently. Eventually, people will blast their way through…

Seriously eroding every element of employee engagement for the rest of the organization!

While every stage should be an opportunity for the leader to relook at their management style, the last is time for serious introspection. A rebellion in the team would have serious consequences for the business and the leader’s own career. Even if internal politics at higher levels comes into play…

Luckily, Lt. Wolfe revisited his approach. He spent time with his young charges and painstakingly understood their capabilities and personal aspirations.  

Each child, and the duck, had a different readiness level – ability and willingness. Each had natural strengths, which had not been channeled appropriately by their parents (read previous boss) – who had imposed some of their own expectations on the kids causing stress. Each had unique triggers of engagement. The infant, for example, would only sleep to a specific song and dance routine – which was actually a code created by the children’s late father.

Leaning on his wisdom, the big tough SEAL changed tack. He became less of a ‘boss’ and more of a father figure! This transformation turned the equation on its head and things began to move like clockwork! Engagement, and obedience (aka compliance), levels within the team soared! The results were dramatic!

Business and work will happen – eventually. Jobs and people will change – for sure. But what remains constant will be the arguably childlike expectations people have from their boss. Kindness, support, honesty, appreciation, understanding, respect, space, learning from someone who knows. Someone they can look up to and respect in return. Simple things. Yet…

Leaders, in their quest for financial success often don’t realize that whether they offer it, or not, the highway option always exists. And people will make the choice. Live with it.

And no, I am not going to tell you how The Pacifier ends…

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Topics: Leadership, Strategic HR

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