The Mule: A Movie Review that Analyzes Two Organizational Structures

I loved this movie.  Clint Eastwood was born to play the starring role in “The Mule.”  He is perfect as a dysfunctional, curmudgeonly senior caught in the trap of his own egoism (much like in the movie “Gran Torino).  Eastwood plays an aged, briefly successful, drug runner.

The movie has several messages:

  • put family above work
  • good intentions don’t justify bad actions
  • a clever personality doesn’t always get you out of tight squeezes (but it helps)
  • crime doesn’t ultimately pay

Unfortunately, the director (also Eastwood) hammers the viewer with the first message.  No subtlety here.

But my real comment about “The Mule” has to do with organization dynamics, both with the drug cartel and the DEA.  Both are portrayed as extremely top-down organizations.  Which I suspect is actually the case, particularly the former.

The first drug lord is smart enough to put up with his successful mule’s erratic behavior.  He realizes that his unpredictability is an asset.  His aging employee, with a clever personality, doesn’t profile as a likely mule.  About halfway through the movie, the first drug lord is assassinated.  The new one is a bully hardass, and insists that the mule stick exactly to the plan and behave as ordered.  The new boss also gets greedy.   All with disastrous results.

The DEA on the other hand, is governed by short-term results.  The local supervisor is constantly pressured to either defecate or get off the pot.  He has to go out on a limb to support his agents.  It’s management by objectives (measurable results) gone amok.

All this I view as a plea to understand your employees and colleagues, and to let them do their job.  The mule’s original technique worked to perfection until he was forced into a mold, and then predictability doomed the transport project.  The DEA agents were doing their job, but management was impatient for reportable results.  Senior managers tried to call off the investigation prematurely.

All this leads me to the following conclusions:

  • top-down management, in civilian organizations, sucks
  • play to your employee’s and colleague’s strengths
  • do your best to help your employees and colleagues succeed

Maybe I will write a book.  Instead of calling it “Everything I learned about management I learned in kindergarten,” I will call it “I learned management skills from ‘The Mule.”

This entry was posted in Movies, Organizational Dynamics, Personal Essays and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Mule: A Movie Review that Analyzes Two Organizational Structures

  1. Susan says:

    Management is essential. Maybe not “top down” or Mafioso, but we all need some sort of management (for lack of a better term).

  2. rogerdhansen says:

    I’m not arguing that management is unnecessary, but that it needs to be limited. Management needs to provide a vision of where the organization is going. Then the managers need to delegate and empower their employees (I prefer to call them colleagues). They need to recognize the strengths of individual employees, and play to those strengths. They need to provide avenues to help employees become more productive. Lead with a carrot and not a stick.

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