Wall Street. Glengarry Glen Ross. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. They’re all classic cinematic primers on how to succeed in corporate life. But there’s another deserving movie that never gets cited for its business acumen—Raiders of the Lost Ark (maybe it's the fedora?).
Recently I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, for the first time as a career professional (last month it was re-released in IMAX and it’s just out on Blu-ray). I wanted to re-live the thrilling action set-pieces in the 1981 blockbuster—the first movie to feature Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s iconic whip-cracking archaeologist Indiana Jones, portrayed by Harrison Ford—that captivated so many of us during our childhoods.
What I didn’t foresee was how Raiders of the Lost Ark—though not its three sequels—relates to adults in the office, not just kids at home. Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is foremost an action hero saving the world from maniacal Nazis. But he is also a brilliant, pragmatic multitasker who vanquishes villains that embody everything wrong about uninspired workplaces.
Consider the following:
Hardheaded Heroism. Indiana Jones adopts a practical approach to what might be called the work-adventure balance. Fellow globetrotting explorer Tintin, the subject of a more recent Spielberg blockbuster, never files an expense claim, while James Bond’s brazen disdain for protocol would not be tolerated by MI6 in reality. By contrast, Dr. Henry Walton "Indiana" Jones, Jr. combines his passion (archaeology) with making a living through teaching. He does not go off searching for the Ark of the Covenant on a whim. It becomes worth his while only when his friend Marcus Brody secures him a grant from the U.S. government.
At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is dismayed to be told by army officials that the Ark will be placed in a government warehouse rather than stored in a museum. The scene poignantly captures how an individual can perform a task brilliantly and still have no choice but to succumb to wider organizational realities. Rather than continuing to fight an unwinnable battle, Jones complains to his old flame Marion Ravenwood that the army are "bureaucratic fools" and the pair go on to have a drink where he doubtless continues to rail against the compromise in a more suitable setting than a state building.
Prisoners of Process. The Nazis’ desire for global domination is expressed through a veneration of process. The end game might be messianic glory, but how they get there will be via arcane minutiae. This is typified by an exchange between the Nazi Officer Shliemann and Indy’s French foe Belloq, who is collaborating with them to help procure the Ark. Belloq declares: "Archeology is not an exact science. It does not adhere to time schedules." Shliemann replies: "The Fuhrer is not a patient man. He demands constant reports and he expects progress."
I am most definitely not suggesting that today’s managers are Nazis who engender working environments in any way comparable to the conditions under which the Third Reich operated. Far from it. But Shliemann’s point resonates in our instant, hyperconnected world where it’s never been easier or faster to create a spreadsheet, calendar, or report. Too many micro-managing bosses crave short-term success through process plans, an excess of which, in limiting the scope and time for creativity and innovation, can end up reducing the potential for achieving the gains the documents are designed to deliver.
Furthermore, the Nazis are obsessed with the Ark of the Covenant for its power, without having any conception of how it will add meaningful value. They pay dearly for overlooking Indiana Jones’ friend Sallah’s warning that the Ark is "something that man was not meant to disturb." This mindset to possess without an underlying sustainable purpose accounts, albeit on a much less dramatic scale than in the movie, for why so many costly ill-thought-out product rollouts, expenditures, and hires, fall short across the business landscape.
Spontaneity Rules. In one of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s most famous scenes, Indiana Jones, confronted by an excitable sword-wielding assassin, responds to his elaborate routine by shooting him on the spot.
Every successful entrepreneur has these kinds of inspirational off-the-cuff eureka moments (without necessarily having to kill anyone), but it’s a scene that applies to every rung on the career ladder.
Advance preparation is a pre-requisite for a meeting or presentation, but success or failure is often determined by a spontaneous response to an unscripted question that has to be formulated and communicated in a split second. Thinking on your feet often outweighs the information that you’ve accumulated in your head.
In his book Blockbuster, film writer Tom Shone argues that Indiana Jones is not a very good archaeologist since he never holds on to his artifacts. But Dr. Jones should be teaching business, not archaeology. We can all learn a good deal from his exploits in Raiders of the Lost Ark—whether or not our job requires us to bring a bullwhip to work.
Tom Teodorczuk is a business and entertainment writer living in New York.