20 Years Later, There Still Is No Spoon: Leadership Lessons from The Matrix
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of one of my all-time favorite movies, The Matrix. The post-apocalyptic cyberpunk style mixed with the philosophical depth and ground-breaking effects all add up to a monumental achievement. It’s influence on pop-culture remains ever-present today, which is shocking considering it was released 20 years ago.
For a while after The Matrix’s release, it was popular to analogize just about anything and everything to it. So much, that what I’m about to do may be considered cliché. My hope is that enough time has passed that The Matrix has transcended beyond cliché and is now retro-cool. You be the judge.
So here we go, these are my leadership lessons from The Matrix:
Follow the White Rabbit
Probably my favorite aspect of the movie is the slow revelation of information. As a first-time viewer, you are in the dark and clueless as to what is going on, just like the protagonist, Neo. You both have questions, but the answers come slowly. Neo started out in the movie in a conundrum. He knew something was wrong with the world, but he couldn’t figure out what or why. Trinity hacks into Neo’s computer with an obscure sequence of messages that ends with “Follow the White Rabbit… knock, knock.”
The leadership lesson here is all about how to handle uncertainty, ambiguity, and confusion. No leader wants to be in this situation, but if we’re honest, it’s an integral part of our every-day experience. The only correct response is to do what Neo does. Stay curious, move forward, and watch what happens next. The answers come slowly, not all at once. We need to muster the patience and tenacity to stay with the confusion until clarity starts to emerge. At no point does a true leader retreat to the comfortable.
Take the Red Pill
The story of The Matrix is about a series of choices. The most iconic choice in the film is when Morpheus offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill: “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Morpheus explains to Neo that this is the point of no return. Unfortunately for Neo, Morpheus has not given him nearly enough information at this point in the film for him to make an educated decision.
Leaders make decisions. In business, sometimes we explicitly refer to certain levels of leadership (usually with certain levels of signing authority) as “decision makers.” Being a decision maker myself, I try to get as much information as possible and as much input from others as possible to make the highest-quality decision.
Like Neo, often all the desired information and input isn’t available when it’s decision time. Like Neo, sometimes the decision is a “point of no return”-type decision. Leaders face these all the time. Also, like Neo, they don’t need to face them alone. Leaders need to surround themselves with other trusted leaders to help them make the leap in the urgent and uncertain circumstance. Take the red pill.
There is No Spoon
When Neo visits the Oracle, he encounters a young boy that appears to have the telekinetic ability to bend spoons with his mind. While that’s what it looks like, in The Matrix there’s another way of looking at it:
Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Boy: Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
The world doesn’t bend to our will. As leaders, we often feel powerless to change the world around us because it feels so rigid and established. Furthermore, the people around us tend to resist change. All of this adds up to some serious frustration, given that at the core, leadership is change. Leading by staying the same isn’t leadership. So, what is a leader to do? There is one thing that a leader can always change: himself or herself. The lesson is, that when you can see things for how they truly are, then adapt your own thinking and approach accordingly, the world bends in response.
This is one of the reasons that I continuously read, learn, and listen to leadership and technology trends around me. I figure that yesterday’s answers solve yesterday’s problems, therefore, I need to immerse myself in new thinking and continuous learning to understand current issues and adapt accordingly.
Be “The One”
Neo spends all but the last few minutes of the film believing that he’s not “The One.” He’s surrounded by heightened expectations of what he’s going to do, what’s he’s capable of, how he’s going to save the world, and all the while, he’s sees himself as just a normal guy. His visit with the Oracle is less about the fact that she told him that he’s not the one, and more about how she merely reflected what she saw in his own self-doubt.
By this point in the film, all of Neo’s “what is the matrix” questions have been answered. Intellectually, he gets it, but his self-doubt is holding him back. After Morpheus’ amazing rescue, he tells Neo, “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
As a leader, I’m often treated with heightened expectations. My positional authority gives weight to my words and power to my actions. However, I walk around the office just feeling like a normal and average guy. Sometimes those feelings of self-doubt creep in. I look at the problems around me and think to myself, “I’m not special, I can’t fix this.”
The lesson here is that leaders overcome self-doubt and show-up as “The One” for their team. This isn’t about ego; it’s about using your unique skills and authority to do what only you can do for your team. If someone else could do it, it would have been done by now. You see the problems, so you need to muster the self-confidence to do something about it. Your team is counting on you.
Those are my leadership lessons from The Matrix. I hope you enjoyed it. If it’s been a decade or so since you’ve watched The Matrix, queue it up tonight to celebrate the 20th anniversary. I guarantee that you’ll be full of leadership inspiration by the time Rage Against the Machine plays for the credit reel.
This article was adapted from my original post on April 28th, 2017.