Learning Leadership From The Movie 13 Days

I don’t care what your political orientation is, if you want an awesome two hour lesson in leadership watch the movie Thirteen Days.  It’s the story of the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis based on the book by May and Zelikow titled The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Amy and I watched it last night.  I was exhausted from two weeks on the east coast and was having trouble speaking (Amy refers to it as “getting the dregs of Brad.”)  I think I was even out of dregs so I just laid on the coach and watched the movie.  I half watched it a few months ago while catching up on email and I saw it when it first came out so I knew the story.  But when I watched it a few months ago I didn’t give it my undivided attention.  This time I did because I didn’t have the energy to do anything else.

On Thursday and Friday I was in DC and had four significant experiences.  The first was a tour of the CIA which, while limited to very specific physical areas (including the CIA gift shop), included a 75 minute roundtable with the CIA’s CTO and his team about the future.  Later Thursday night I had a very quiet tour of the West Wing.  Friday morning I was on a panel on The Need for Net Neutrality with Brad Burnham (Union Square Ventures) and Santo Politi (Spark Capital) followed by a dynamite meeting at the White House with Phil Weiser and members of the National Economic Council team, Aneesh Chopra (CTO of the US), and Vivek Kundra (CIO of the US).  For two days I was immersed in government leadership.

Yesterday I woke up very late in the morning to Brad Burnham’s post titled Web Services as Governments.  It’s a must read post where he makes several very specific analogies for which web services act like which kinds of government.  He specifically breaks down which government he thinks Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Craigslist look like.  While you may not agree with his mappings, the general construct is incredibly powerful when you think about creating a company that operates on top of a web service (or platform company.)

And then – after sleeping most of the day – I watched Thirteen Days.  As I was immersed in it, I kept thinking about examples from Brad’s post as well as my experience dealing with web services that are powerful governments.  When I think about those examples, Thirteen Days is a movie that every CEO and every member of the management team in these companies (or any company for that matter) should watch.

As a bonus, in both my CIA meeting and the Net Neutrality panel I got to toss out my line that “in 40 years we will not be able to distinguish between biological machines and non-biological humans.  Basically the machines will take over and our goal should be that they are nice to us.”  After waking up this morning feeling much more rested, it was extra fun to see a huge NY Times titled Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday about the Singularity.

  • Pete0

    The RFK book of e same title is equally compelling, a real world treatise on both leadership and negotiation.

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  • Brad, funny to me that you should mention it. Years ago I took a class from the late Eugene Webb, one of the great business profs of not that long ago, on leadership in organizations (or something like that). The Robert F. Kennedy book 13 days was one of two books he used to teach leadership in that class … the other one was Mario Puzo's The Godfather.

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  • Erasmo

    hi Brad

    could you share your view on key learnings/takeouts from the movie?

    I loved the movie too and rushed through your post looking for your opinion on what you believe the topic learnings are and how they can relate to running a company….you mentioned you connected to Brad Burnhams post but didn’t go on to explain…



    • There were two key things that jumped out at me.  First was how calm JFK generally stayed throughout the crisis.  There was only one emotional outburst and it was at a moment in time where yet another stupid thing happened as a result of someone in the military ignoring JFK’s specific orders.  The second was how JFK synthesized all of the conflicting data coming at him, let everyone say their piece, and then took his time – even in the midst of a very loud clock ticking – making his decision. 

      There were many other leadership lessons from the movie but they are nicely integrated into the movie itself.  Watch it!

      • DaveJ

        Watched it last night. I agree, great presentation of great leadership. If only they hadn't made the military brass into "cartoon figures" (as several reviewers put it) – when leadership becomes really hard is when the arguments as well as thoughtful people are on both sides of an issue.

  • Now, i'm having trouble countering that week. I was jus' watchin the game, havin a Bud!

  • dogeesh

    That was a great film. I walked away with some of the same thoughts Brad. One key thing for me was JFK's ability to look not only at the information he was being given, but at who was presenting the information and trying to figure out two key elements. 1) What is their perspective and angle, 2) What information are they not telling me that I need to find from another source. Not necessarily negative, just recognizing everyone has a perspective and can only provide so much information. Realizing that JFK's job was to figure out what really was the best action for the country at that time. A tough thing to do as a leader.

  • SirLanse

    Interesting, I worked for a guy who was supposed to support the "Pay of Pigs" but got a stand down order.
    His perspective on JFK's leadership was very different.
    If JFK had shown more leadership and backbone earlier, the russians would not have tried that BS!

  • Brad, thanks for posting on your DC trip. Sounds like Phil is doing great there, good to hear.

    We need more voices in support of Net Neutrality. It's becoming a topic in CSIA public policy committee. If the carriers are able charge for prioritized traffic it could create serious problems for software and service providers.

    Also love the reference to Singularity. more people should read Kurzweil to understand what's coming in our lifetimes.

  • Coincidentally, another great leadership-training movie also has "13" in the title: Apollo 13. That scene where the guy throws a box of stuff on a table and tells the engineers to build something that will save the astronauts' lives is amazing.

    Maybe we should organize a "13" film festival.

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