What We're Watching October 2017

What We're Watching


If you have yet to see the film Hidden Figures, I encourage you to see it immediately. And, if you’ve seen it once…see it again! On a flight from Tokyo to LA recently, I watched it for a third time and was again struck by how remarkable this movie is: the real-life story of three inspiring black women who were instrumental in advancing the NASA space program and both racial and gender equality—in 1961, Hampton, VA. It’s rich with great lessons in leadership and I was especially struck by how many of the 30 behaviors of the LPI®: The Leadership Practices Inventory® I could see demonstrated by the film’s characters.

Take Dorothy Vaughan, my favorite leading lady played by Octavia Spencer. In every way, she exemplified the definition of leadership and how it differs from management. Although she was one among many women working in the "Colored Computers" department—a peer with no title of supervisor—it was evident that she had established credibility among her co-workers and was clearly seen as a leader. As a visionary, she saw and understood the ramifications of the new IBM computer that had just arrived: it could eliminate her job and those of the other women as well. So, she led by example. She challenged herself to learn FORTRAN, the computer coding program at that time, and how to operate the new computer. She then challenged the others and showed how their interests could be realized by enlisting in a common vision. The result, of course, was not only did they keep their jobs but, when the time came, they were fully prepared to step up and run the machines when others were not. Ultimately, they ended up training other NASA employees. And while Dorothy was finally recognized for her leadership and promoted to supervisor, she was an amazing leader long before that ever happened.

Janelle Monáe portrays Mary Jackson, a fearless woman working on the Mercury 7. With dreams of being a NASA engineer, she takes a risk to challenge the status quo to make it happen. In order to be accepted into NASA's Engineer Training Program, education requirements, including Advance Exception Credits, had to be completed at the University of Virginia or the Hampton High School. As segregation was the law-of-the-land throughout the State of Virginia, including in all of its public institutions, Mary had a fight on her hands. Undeterred by the notion of segregation, in one of her most outstanding scenes she is before a court judge ready to persuade him to allow her to attend night school at the Hampton High School. She has done her research on the judge and begins by praising his many "firsts": the first in his family to enlist in the armed forces (Navy), the first to attend college (George Mason), and the first state judge recommissioned by three governors. She appeals to him with the noble idea of being the first again by saying, "Of all the cases you are going to hear today, which one is going to matter 100 years from now? Which one is going to make you the first?" It is a terrific scene showing how we all have the capacity to expand our influence even though we may not have any “official” control or authority to do so.

Taraji P. Henson plays the lead role of Katherine Goble Johnson, a brilliant mathematician who assisted with the trajectories of the Mercury Atlas and with John Glenn's Friendship 7 launch and landing codes. My favorite scene is when she returns from using the “Colored Ladies Room”, a good half mile from her work location that she must walk/run to in a dress and heels, even in rain. She’s confronted by her boss Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) who asks where she "disappears to every day." With courage and honesty she speaks up, making clear the facts about the separate-but-equal policies and racism that exist at NASA. Whether unaware of the situation or uncaring up to this point, Harrison is moved by her argument to take an active role in dismantling the “coloreds only” bathroom sign and eliminating the separate coffee pot. Katherine’s actions exemplified how you can "lead up" to create change when you have built credibility and influence through your character and work ethic.

All three of these “exemplary leaders” played a critical part in successfully helping NASA beat the Russians into space. They were instrumental in getting Friendship 7 launched and John Glenn safely home after three successful orbits. And each went on to lead extraordinary lives, continuing to demonstrate all the best attributes of great leaders:

Mary Jackson became NASA's and America's first female African-American aeronautical engineer. In 1979, she was appointed Langley's Women's Program Manager where she fought to get women-of-all-colors advanced.

Katherine Johnson went from doing perfect calculations for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and the Space Shuttle. In 2016, NASA dedicated the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Building in honor of her groundbreaking work in space travel. At the age of 97, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and celebrated her 56th wedding anniversary with Jim Johnson.

Dorothy Vaughan became NASA's first African-American Supervisor. As a FORTRAN specialist on the frontier of electronic computing, she was regarded as one of the most brilliant and powerful minds at NASA.

Hidden Figures is an enlightening, engaging, and inspiring story of leadership, change, and making a positive difference that is sure to encourage your heart. And for all of my fellow practitioners of The Leadership Challenge, there are many more great examples of The Five Practices and the 30 LPI behaviors in this wonderful film that can be incorporated into The Leadership Challenge® Workshop or in any type of coaching session.


Mary Cooper is a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge and president of Engaging Outcomes, an Orlando-based training and consulting firm focused on guiding leaders and organizations in leaving a legacy. Formerly a consultant for the Disney Institute and co-author of The Voice of Leadership, Mary can be reached at mcooper@EngagingOutcomes.com.

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