TWO STARS - Underdeveloped
Many people don’t develop their leadership skills until they come under fire. This is true of Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) of “U-571.”
As the executive officer of a submarine during World War II, Lt. Tyler has demonstrated excellence in every area of responsibility. He is therefore devastated when his superior officer, Lt. Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton), decides to not recommend him for his own submarine.
Although at first no explanation is given, it becomes clear that the Commander believes the Lieutenant to be too attached to his men. It is the commander’s assertion that command responsibility might require him to sacrifice the life or lives of his men to accomplish his mission or save his ship and he does not believe Lt. Tyler has the ability to make such a disturbing choice.
This critique is a difficult one. Although the film doesn’t explore the lives of the characters well enough to help us understand them, it is clear that Lt. Tyler is a genteel and considerate man. Having been raised in Louisiana, his southern-gentleman charm makes him a beloved leader. But it is this very ability to get close to his men that causes the Commander to question his capacity to make the difficult decisions of leadership often requiring a military commander to put his men in harm’s way.
The assumption of the Commander, that a leader cannot be both close to his men and still make difficult choices is not convincing. Since the Commander avoided any personal conversation with Lt. Tyler and simply left it to the Navy to write a letter denying him a ship, it is clear that the Commander sees leadership as one of keeping emotional and personal distance from those under his command.
Though only superficially explored, the bringing of these two leaders together proves to be the opportunity to create a new type of leader, a leader who can both make hard decisions for the well-being of the crew or organization, while also being able to know and care for those within their care.
Having been denied a boat of his own because of his captain’s perception, the circumstances of an unusual mission provide Lt. Tyler the opportunity to remedy this shortcoming.
Though we won’t share all the unexpected twists and turns that cause this film to be an adrenalin rush, Lt. Tyler unexpectedly is given command of his own submarine with some of his own beloved crew.
Then, as is the nature of leadership, the opportunity forces itself upon him to make the hard decisions.
What is convincing about the film is that at first he is unable to do so.
Facing a situation that has no easy out or conventional battle plan, Lt. Tyler admits to his men that he doesn’t know what to do. In that moment, his older and more experienced Chief, Chief Klough (Harvey Keitel) takes him aside and gives him the wisdom of many combat missions. He says, “Don’t ever tell your men you don’t know what to do. You are the captain, you must know what to do even when you don’t.”
This simple explanation, that a leader must lead or the entire ship or organization will be in danger, sinks deep within Lt. Tyler’s soul. It is then that he matures in his development as a leader. He summons the courage to rise above his personal feelings he has for his men to that lonely place of command.
Although the transition is presented in this film with the same superficial treatment as is given the lives of these brave sailors, the message is a helpful one for any person given the responsibility to lead.
When a leader does not blend both care for the people and care for the organization into a complex mixture of leadership decisions, then he or she will migrate to one extreme or the other. Either the leader will be too soft and try to keep everyone happy or the leader will be too hard and not care about how their decisions effect the lives of their people.
But when blended together, care and courage create a leader capable of getting the best out of both the organization and the individuals within it.
In the end, Lt. Tyler leads his men to accomplish an impossible task for a higher good and they are honored for their achievements. That is the mark of a true leader.