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  • Writer's pictureTerry Dockery

The Bridge on the River Kwai: A Strategic Pivot

If you haven't seen the movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai," it's a classic film that’s well worth your time. It's a) great entertainment, and b) an insightful study of human psychology, culture, and leadership strategy.

If you haven't seen it I'll try not to give away too much of the plot, but it's primarily a story about two leaders during World War II. One is a Japanese officer who is in charge of a prison camp in Thailand, and he's been tasked with building a bridge over the river Kwai to facilitate the movement of Japanese troops. The other is a British officer who is the leader of the British and American prisoners in the camp.

While the two leaders are on opposite sides of the conflict, they share many similarities in values and priorities. They both have a strong sense of duty, fairness, and doing what is "right."

This leads to a power struggle between the two. The Japanese officer subscribes to Douglas McGregor's Theory X philosophy in which workers are to be motivated by reward and punishment only (heavy emphasis on the punishment); i.e., "the carrot and the stick."

Meanwhile, the British officer is trying to convince him that he'll get better results (a good bridge built fast) by using the Theory Y approach of treating the men well and leveraging their intrinsic desires to be part of a high-performance team and to do work that they can be proud of. This approach also achieves the British officer's goal of improving the treatment and the morale of his men.

After some struggle and soul searching, the Japanese officer agrees to try the Theory Y approach, and progress on the bridge goes swimmingly (so to speak). However, late in the movie the British officer has a crisis of conscience in which he realizes that his approach is materially aiding the Japanese war effort.

He wonders if he should make a strategic pivot--a sharp right turn in his leadership strategy. Check out the film to see what he decides to do.

Sustained financial success in business is all about leadership; i.e., building a high-performance culture and a high-performance strategy. Part of that leadership skill is knowing when it's time to make a sharp right turn.

High-Performance Habits

  1. Create unambiguous and focused strategic and tactical implementation plans for your organization.

  2. Scan your internal and external environments regularly, and update your plan 3-4 times a year.

  3. Make a major strategic pivot when your scans indicate the need for it, thereby avoiding a long and painful trip down that famous river in Egypt--denial.

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