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Leadership Lessons for Organizational Culture Change From Randle P. McMurphy

One of my favorite movies of all-time is “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” from 1975 starring Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy. McMurphy, a convict who faked being crazy to avoid serving out his prison sentence, has just arrived at the psychiatric hospital. Upon his arrival, he and Nurse Ratched, the tyrannical head nurse on the ward, immediately clash. They soon become adversaries as McMurphy challenges her leadership and the “culture” she has created on the ward.

Nurse Ratched, whose leadership style could only be described as autocratic, sadistic, and controlling, has relied on humiliation, intimidation, and threats to maintain order in the ward. She has no intention of changing how she runs the ward and definitely sees McMurphy as a threat to her.

In one of the classic scenes from the movie, Nurse Ratched arbitrarily decides that despite the patients’ desire and unanimous vote to watch the World Series on TV, they are forbidden to do so. So, McMurphy, who is not going to take this without a fight, begins to announce imaginary baseball plays as he watches a blank TV screen. Soon other patients gather around him and begin cheering on the invisible players on the blank screen. This, of course, infuriates Nurse Ratched and she immediately begins plotting how she will regain control of the ward and of McMurphy.

Let me take a brief movie intermission here to assure you I am not suggesting that organizations are like psychiatric wards (though sometimes it may feel like yours acts like one!) Neither am I suggesting that leaders of organizations are autocratic, sadistic, and controlling like Nurse Ratched or a rebellious convict like Randle P. McMurphy (though I am sure there are some out there that fit that description).

So, what can we learn about how to effectively lead organizational culture change from such an unlikely story and an unlikely protagonist?

Here are three simple yet powerful leadership lessons and how McMurphy applied them in the psychiatric hospital to begin creating a culture that was more empowering, unifying, less restrictive, and more enjoyable and fun.

  1. Successful organizational culture change starts with strong, innovative leadership. When McMurphy arrived at the hospital, he immediately and very consciously sought the role of leader. He recognized a need for change in the “culture” and he filled the leadership void with passion, enthusiasm, creative thinking, and excitement. I am not here to argue that the culture he created was without its faults as it did involve sneaking prostitutes into the hospital!

  2. Successful leaders of change communicate a clear future vision that gives people some clarity about what they want to create. In many ways, McMurphy was a visionary. He helped his fellow patients see and experience a future unencumbered by rigid rules, limiting boundaries, and tyrannical leadership. This was his vision.

  3. During an organizational culture change, effective leaders provide opportunities for people to feel connected to others, to feel like they have some control over their circumstances, and that they are important and valued. Before McMurphy arrived most of the patients were literally in their own “private worlds.” He gave them hope and courage, and he helped them believe in and stand up for themselves.

As a leader, McMurphy accomplished a lot in the short time he was there. While I do not recommend (nor condone) all of his unorthodox methods, I still believe that there is a lot to be learned from him about how to lead an organizational culture change.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I will not spoil the ending for you. Just remember the next time you embark on an organizational or culture change initiative the leadership lessons of Randle P. McMurphy from the “Cuckoo’s Nest.”

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