Happy Birthday John Cleese.

Part of my nerd pedigree is that in my adolescence I tape recorded every Monty Python show off television (and diligently labelled each with show synopses cut out of the TV Guide). Perhaps a portent to my future life settling in Britain (I think there are two major branches of nerds – Python obsessives and Star Trek obsessives. Most of my nerd friends seem to fall into one of the two categories. I guess the liberal arts nerd were Pythons and the science folks were Trekkies).

And many Python fans have their favourite and mine was definitely John Cleese. Cleese has now taken to a career in motivational speaking and touches on topics of leadership and management on a regular basis. In one of his talks, he shares the store of ‘Gordon the Guided Missile’ which conveniently offers lessons in both ‘Leadership and Management’ as well as ‘Embracing Failure’. The latter is shared in his speech on ‘The Importance of Mistakes’

  • “The first nursery story I ever remember my mother reading to me was Gordon the Guided Missile. Let me explain why the guided missile found this special, warm place in my heart. Gordon the guided missile sets off in pursuit of its target. It immediately sends out signals to discover if it is on the right course to hit that target. Signals come back: ‘No, you are not on course. So change it. Up a bit and slightly to the left.’ And Gordon changes course as instructed and then, rational little fellow that he is, sends out another signal. ‘Am I on course now?’ Back comes the answer, ‘No, but if you adjust your present course a bit further up and a bit further to the left, you will be.’ He adjusts his course again and sends out another request for information. Back comes the answer, ‘No, Gordon, you’ve still got it wrong. Now you must come down a bit and a foot to the right.’ And the guided missile goes on and on making mistakes, and on and on listening to feedback and on and on correcting its behavior until it blows up the nasty enemy thing. And we applaud the missile for its skill. If, however some critic says, ‘Well, it certainly made a lot of mistakes on the way’, we reply, ‘Yes, but that didn’t matter, did it? It got there in the end.’ All its mistakes were little ones, in the sense that they could be immediately corrected. And as a result of making many hundreds of mistakes, eventually the missile succeeded in avoiding the one mistake which really would have mattered: missing the target. I suggest that unless we have a tolerant attitude towards mistakes — I might almost say a positive attitude towards them — we shall be behaving irrationally, unscientifically, and unsuccessfully.”

Another fan of ‘Gordon the Guided Missile’ is Preston Hunt who relates it to

  • "’Well,’ I thought, ‘I don’t know what my target is, either, but if I can build a Gordon, the Guided Missile, mechanism, I’ll hit the target, whatever it is.’ And the $20 million/10 years mechanism is what I came up with. It requires me to keep two lists: one for things that I would continue to do if I woke up tomorrow and discovered I had $20 million and 10 years to live, and another for things that under those circumstances I’d stop doing. I review the lists over time, and I realize activities on the first list are really neat and I’d like to do more of them. And Gordon, the Guided Missile, shifts to the left. And other things keep showing up on the wrong list, and I realize it’s time to quit them. Gordon shifts the other way. So there’s positive feedback and negative feedback; Gordon is getting feedback the whole time.”

Leaders think about the upside of the ‘start doing’’ Managers think about the downsides requiring some ‘stop doing’.

The ‘Four Yorkshire Men’ sketch (video at top) is one of the all-time Python classics and a failure-embracing orgy of worser times nostalgia.

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