Five Leadership Keys from Butch Cassidy from

Written by Geoff Loftus, Contributor

Author – LEAD LIKE IKE: Ten Business Strategies from the CEO of D-Day

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For many years, Butch Cassidy was an industry leader, racking up many successes and living the high life despite an erratic income flow and numerous brushes with various legal institutions. He was an innovator who never became so enamored of tradition that he couldn’t make money in new ways.

No, I’m not talking about the real Butch, a gentleman named Robert Leroy Parker, who became famous for robbing banks and trains, leading a gang known as the Wild Bunch with the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh). I’m talking about the movie incarnation: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross.

If you’ve ever seen the movie, you probably remember Butch’s line, “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” How true. Butch isn’t the toughest guy in his gang, and he’s not the fastest gun, but as Sundance tells him, “You just keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.” Butch manages to out-think almost everyone around him, and that’s one heck of a leadership technique.

You might think that Butch’s leadership style requires tremendous brain power, but that’s not true. What it requires are intellectual techniques that anyone can practice. Here are Butch Cassidy’s key leadership lessons:

  • Gather Intel: When we first meet Butch, at the very beginning of the movie, he’s casing a bank to see if robbing it is a good idea. He checks out the bars on the windows, the safe at the rear of the bank, and the armed guards. When he and Sundance are on the run later in the movie, being chased by a super-determined posse, he continually analyzes the situation, picking his own brains and Sundance’s, asking “Who are those guys?” Eventually he figures out that the posse includes Joe Lefors (the toughest lawman) and Lord Baltimore (an American Indian with an odd name and a supernatural ability to track in the wild). Knowing his competition helps Butch decide what to try next.This is akin to companies like GM and Ford buying their competitors’ cars and taking them apart to see how they run. When you understand your competition, you make better decisions.
  • Benchmark: During the chase, Butch continually looks behind him to see what the distant posse is doing and comparing it to his own capabilities. He’s shocked to see the posse tracking them over a large rocky outcrop. He says to Sundance, “I couldn’t do that. Could you do that? Why can they do it? Who are those guys?” His benchmarking leads to the realization that they are being tracked by a super talent. Butch tries one thing after the other. When nothing works, he decides to go where no one can follow – to jump off a cliff into a river. Butch and Sundance‘s classic dialogue sums up the situation:

Butch: Alright. I’ll jump first.

Sundance: No.

Butch: Then you jump first.

Sundance: No, I said.

Butch: What’s the matter with you?

Sundance: I can’t swim.

Butch: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.

Sundance (as they run to the cliff edge and leap together): Oh, $^&$%^$&*

They jump. They survive. They escape the posse. (For the time being.)

After Apple kick-started the tablet market with the iPad, what were companies like Samsung and Asus going to do? They couldn’t follow since they didn’t have access to Apple‘s proprietary iOS (the software that makes iPads run), but they could do something completely different and did – Google‘s Android software. At the moment, Android tables (from a whole bunch of manufacturers) outsell iPads.

  • Collect opinions and information, then decide: This would seem to be Management 101, but it’s hard to imagine that it’s done at all organizations. During a brief stretch of legit work, Butch and Sundance are payroll guards for a Bolivian mine. When they are held up and their boss is killed by local bandits, they feel that they have to get the money back. Butch knows he’s the thinker, but he also knows Sundance is much better at this kind of operation and asks him how they retrieve the money. Once he hears Sundance’s opinion, he makes a decision, and they get the money back.Hard to imagine that when Disney hired Michael Ovitz to succeed CEO Michael Eisner, anyone shared an opinion with Eisner as to Ovitz’s suitability. In fact, in the shareholder suit that followed Ovitz’s precipitous and costly departure, it turned out that Eisner made this mistake pretty much by himself.
  • Stick to what you’re good at: Butch knows he isn’t the gunslinger that Sundance was, so he leaves the gun play to his partner. You need to know what you’re good at and what you’re not. And don’t do the stuff you’re not good at. After years of success with NBCUniversal followed by a major slump, GE realized it really wasn’t good at running an entertainment business and sold it to Comcast.
  • Take Action: No paralysis through analysis. No matter how tough things are, take action. Early in the movie, Butch is confronted by the gigantic Harvey Logan, who wants to challenge Butch for leadership of the gang in a fight. Harvey is a truly frightening individual – he looks as if he could break Butch in two without breathing heavily. Butch has no choice. He has to fight. But he decoys Harvey with conversation and then launches a surprise attack, kicking Harvey in his most vulnerable spot. The fight is over almost before it’s begun.

Unlike Butch, you may not be smarter than your competition or your colleagues. But you can still practice the leadership keys he used. The keys require thought before action, honesty regarding yourself and your situation, and finally, action.

Is this a guarantee of success? Unfortunately, no. As Butch and Sundance discovered, eventually the law of averages will catch up with you and you’ll find yourself in a no-win situation. But you can go out in a blaze of glory. They did.