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Conan the Businessman

By Gary Griffiths, CEO

“What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?”

I’m a voracious reader, but not a big fan of business books.  I won’t belabor this point – but how many times in a career, do you need some pompous ass telling you to “always hire people smarter than you” to realize that following that logic makes the CEO the stupidest person in the company?  Well, perhaps I can think of a few that may resemble that remark, but I don’t think shareholders like to subscribe to that theory.  Alternatively, there’s a Bruce Springsteen line in “No Surrender”: “We learned more from a three minute record than we ever did in school.”  My one exception – Dilbert – if that is considered a business book,  because I’m all in for the wisdom of Scott Adams.

So let’s get back to the subject, Conan the Barbarian.  I’m referring to the 1982 Dino De Laurentiis film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  So how can an Austrian-born actor (and former California Governator) playing a comic book heathen from the days before “the oceans drank Atlantis…” shed any light on a the trials of a 21st century CEO?  Well,  “Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”

First, Conan had laser focus (even if he had no idea what a laser was).  Since some of you (remarkably) may not know Conan’s story, here it is in a nutshell:  As a young boy, Conan’s nomadic tribe is invaded by the evil snake-worshiping sorcerer, Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones), who kills Conan’s parents and all of their buddies, and kidnaps Conan and the other children to sell into slavery.  Poor Conan gets chained to a spoke on this big wheel, providing the human power to run a grindstone out in the middle of East-Overshoe, Eurasia.  Now, when Conan starts his labor, there are a few dozen other unfortunates chained to the spokes alongside him.  Fast forward ten years or so.  Apparently everyone else has perished but Conan, who’s still grinding away.  Except he’s really ripped now.  Ten years of manual labor will do that – if it doesn’t kill you.  Maybe this is why they started calling work “the grind.”  Anyway, I’m sure he crushed a lot of grain over that time.  But he had focus: revenge.  Survive and find the murderer of his parents.  If some business book-author asked Conan,  “What keeps you awake at 2AM, other than the wheel?” he’d likely have said, “revenge.”  No distractions.  No whales to save, no SOX seminars to attend.  Focus: a good thing for a CEO.  I’m not chained to a wheel, and I’m not looking for revenge.  But I’ve got focus: growing revenue and making iPass profitable.

Eventually, Conan is discovered by a guy who manages gladiators ,who, in the day, I guess would be the “off-Broadway” for the Roman coliseum set.  Conan rises to gory stardom: “In time, his victories could not easily be counted.”  So he is taken east, gets to study advanced swordsmanship and poetry, and lives with a Genghis Khan-kind-of-clan.  So he becomes even more formidable.  And smarter.  Still driven by revenge, Conan now learns, while fighting for his life in the gladiator pits, something else that is important to his ultimate success:

He did not care any more… life and death… the same. Only that the crowd would be there to greet him with howls of lust and fury. He began to realize his sense of worth… he mattered.

A sense of worth – a way of measurement.  For Conan, it was being greeted with “howls of lust and fury.”  Today, that sounds like an earnings call.  Seriously, the sense of worth is an important factor for a CEO.  We can find it in KPIs, the key measurements upon which our business can plot our progress,  including the stock price, a report card that may not mean much on a day-to-day basis, but certainly will reflect those howls of lust and fury over the long run.

As CEOs, we frequently face adversaries,  adversaries who wears many different faces.  It can be competition.  Or law suits.  An adversary who comes in the form of shareholder activists.  And deals lost, or accounts churned out.  That we face adversaries is a given.  Handling adversaries with strength and courage and humor is a lesson we can learn from Conan.  Let’s start when Conan is plotting to break into one of Thula Doom’s outpost, where he meets a fellow thief, Valeria, soon to be his lover:

Valeria:  Do you know what horror lies beyond that wall?

Conan:   No.

Valeria:  Then you go first.

Later, Conan and crew are captured and brought before King Osric.  Surely, Conan and his two companions will, in the best case, be thrown into the dungeon.  And the King is rightly pissed:  “What daring!  What outrageousness!  What insolence!  What arrogance!”  And Conan hangs his head, appreciating the important lesson: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”  But the King softens.  And smiles.  “I salute you.”   For only Conan, a barbarian, a common thief, had the courage to stand up to the evil Thulsa Doom – to face his adversary directly and courageously.  And of course, who can argue with the simple business axiom, “Crush your enemies.  See them driven before you.  And hear the lamentations of the women.”  Oh well, as I mentioned, it was a different era.

I could go on, but I’ll close with a subtle message implicit in Schwarzenegger’s performance:  “Don’t talk – act.”  Now, the cynic would say that Arnold’s accent at the time was still so strong and his talents so fledgling, that too much dialogue was a risk.  But whatever the reason, in the movie, the best leaders don’t do a lot of talking.  They don’t have to tell you how great they are.  We can see it in their single-minded purpose, in their measurements, and in the way that they are not afraid to face adversity.  We can all learn from those simple truths.

So I’m not going to say that Conan the Barbarian is my favorite movie, but…

Yeah, actually I am.  “Let us take the world by the throat and make it give us what we desire.”