Lessons from The Lego Movie

The LEGO Movie is a delight for kids but it is equally delightful for adults (unless you like a lot of screaming in the background; try to see it in one of those 18+ mini-theatres where they show opera simulcasts and serve beer at your seat.) For all of the post-modernists in the room, it’s delightfully meta and highly ironic (an anti-business movie produced by a US$4 billion toy company – snort.) The script is tight, the voice acting is great, and there are lots of pop culture references spanning the last three decades. It’s good fun.

The movie also offers a number of lessons for business leaders about leadership, teamwork, and the important balance between vision and execution. ** Mild spoilers ahead if you are serious about watching the film for plot. **

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The movie’s protagonist is Emmett, the prototypical Everyhuman. Emmett is driven by rules and routine, literally following his manual, Instructions to Fit In, Have Everybody Like You, and Always be Happy. He is indistinguishable from anyone else: he goes to work (he is, of course, a builder), watches the water cooler favourite “Where are My Pants?” on TV, and sings along to the number one song, Everything is Awesome. I haven’t seen that much cheerful uniformity since I interviewed for a job with a packaged goods company after completing my business degree.

One day at work, he accidently finds the Piece of Resistance that, according to a prophesy, marks him as The Special: “the most talented, most interesting, most special person in the universe.” He is the one who is to lead a group of Master Builders to overthrow Lord Business, who has threatened to destroy the world. The Master Builders are charged with coming up with creative solutions to life’s problems. The problem is, Emmett’s life has been so prescribed that he not use to thinking. Note this exchange with Master Builder Vetruvius and Lucy.

Vitruvius: We are entering your mind.

Emmet: What?

Lucy: I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought.

Emmet: That’s not true. Introducing, the double decker couch so everyone could watch TV together and be buddies.

Lucy: That’s literally the dumbest thing I ever heard.

Vitruvius: Let me handle this. That idea is just the worst.

The Master Builders “including but not limited to Superman, Wonder Woman, The Mermaid, Green Ninja, 1980s Something Space Guy, Michelangelo [the painter], Michelangelo [the teenage mutant ninja turtle], and the 2002 NBA All-Stars” are life’s visionaries. They are creative, natural leaders to whom people look in times of rapid change. I fully expected that Emmett would rise to the role and become some sort of LEGO-building Steve Jobs. But that’s where the movie surprises and is closer to business reality. While the Master Builders are smart and creative, they are not able to outwit Lord Business who seems one step ahead of them in anticipating their weapons. The group is in despair as they think that Emmett lacks the building savvy to save them. Emmett, however, is not to be underestimated.

Emmett: What does he [Lord Business] never expect Master Builders to do? … Follow instructions. You are so creative…but you don’t work together.

How often in business does a visionary swoop in to save the day, overlooking the work of long-term employees who have been living and breathing the company’s issues for years. So sure are visionaries in their own abilities, that sometimes they will not partner with other senior members of the team. Good leaders and managers bring about results through people. And a leader needs other people to execute her ideas, no matter how brilliant she might be. Unless people are engaged and committed to the plan (it helps if they are part of the planning process) they will not be excited about bringing any ideas to fruition. While cool ideas might get the media excited, a more effective business strategy might be to have highly engaged workers focus on something a little more tried and true. (1980s spaceship anyone?)