Knives at a gun fight: Sean Connery’s lessons in leadership

By Mike Cook
Contributing writer

For most of his 50+ year filmmaking career Sean Connery entertained audiences by repeatedly playing one type of character; dashing, unpredictable, unmanageable to be sure, we are not quite sure he is a hero but we are glad he works for our side. Great stuff for the silver screen but not much of a leadership model. Ironically, his greatest professional honor, an Oscar for best supporting actor came while playing the consummate team player, Officer Jimmy Malone in the 1987 movie version of The Untouchables.

In the film Connery’s character assumed the role of leadership coach for the young, passionate but naïve Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner. In what may be Malone’s most memorable scene he delivers a brief soliloquy on how Ness can best deal his arch enemy Al Capone…

 “You wanna know how you do it? Here’s how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”

In one instances he delivers his message with the aid of a classic rhetorical question when a gangster draws a knife and attempts to stab Ness and winds up shot dead in the process. “Isn’t that just like a #@&**#?” he asks. “Brings a knife to a gun fight!”

Could any message be clearer? If indeed we do need a definition the Urban Dictionary offers this: “Bringing a knife to a gun fight- The act of taking an amount of any substance to a gathering which is obviously insufficient.”

Recently I was reminded of Officer Malone’s little bit of leadership counsel in an exchange I was having with officials at my son’s college. A piece of equipment my son borrowed from the school last spring was noted as damaged upon its return. I was made aware of this situation when I went to pay his Fall tuition. A flag in his record indicated that the damage needed to be paid for before he would be allowed to register.

I contacted my son who said he was aware of the damage and noticed it when he originally picked up the piece of equipment. Since it did not affect the functionality of the equipment he didn’t pay any further attention. Unfortunately he should have brought the damage to the attention of the department personnel he was borrowing from, they didn’t see the issue until the equipment was returned; the cost of repair, $120. Based on my son’s explanation I did not see that we should bear the full cost but also recognized that the department had nothing to go on either except one of their employee’s testimony. I proposed to the supervisor who spoke with me that we split the difference equally.

It seemed to me that we had on our hands a “he said, he said” situation. The supervisor said he was not authorized to make such an arrangement. This is where Officer Jimmy Malone’s words came back to me in a flash of recognition, “Isn’t that just like a #@&**#? He brings a knife to a gun fight!”

Without any forethought I blurted out, “You are kidding right, you cannot make a decision on what amounts to a $60 transaction?” Two levels of management later I was able to conclude the conversation with the department director agreeing to my proposal!

It really doesn’t matter the name of my son’s school, it could be any college anywhere in the country, maybe the world for all I know. It doesn’t even matter that it was a school, it could just as easily have been a manufacturing company’s service department, and the lesson would have been the same.

We ask our managers to lead, to inspire, to direct others in producing results of all kinds and yet we limit their authority in ways that leave them humiliated in front of their charges or the customer. These very same people, who can purchase automobiles worth thousands of dollars, enter into mortgage arrangements for hundreds of thousands of dollars; bring children into the world without asking our permission…need approval for trivial transactions. Why?

Don’t bother to respond. Whatever you are going to say next…that…that right there…is Nonsense!

Engagement and power are inseparable. If our managers are disempowered how can we expect their engagement at anything other than a compliance level? Why would we ever expect them to inspire or be inspired themselves? Why do we hog tie our managers, then wonder why they underperform?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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