It was more than a decade ago when the first Matrix film was released. Yet, I can still vividly recall being captivated by how the movie happily combined science fiction with a Hong Kong action film style.
You take the red pill –you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
More than that, the Matrix wasn’t just a brainless action flick but presented a plot that verged on being philosophical.
In the Matrix world, what humans take to be reality, is actually an artificial virtual reality created by sentient machines, suspending humans in a dream state, in order to harvest the humans as a source of energy for the machines.
Despite this very abstract science fiction setting, I believe the film offers good leadership lessons, particularly in embracing reality and seeking alternative perspectives.
Seek alternative realities
Early in the movie, the character Morpheus offers Neo the choice on whether he wants to learn the truth, which is a completely different reality: “You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill –you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
This is a relevant situation for leaders. All too often, leaders suffer from an 'emperor’s new clothes syndrome', where bad news is filtered and reality is presented through rose-tinted shades. It is too easy to continue taking the “blue pill” and remain blissfully ignorant to very real problems.
The first key takeaway from the film for leaders is, have we surrounded ourselves with “yes-men” and do we have those willing to offer us a “red pill” and expose the “emperor’s new clothes”?
We cannot expect to forge a partnership if we visibly disdain our counter-party.
The situation in real life may not be as simplistic as one point of view of being wrong or false, whereas the alternative is the truth. As in The Matrix, if one dies in the state of virtual reality, one also dies in physical reality. The realities are linked, and to some extent are symbiotic.
I can relate to this with the often conflicting realities in the public and private sector, such as on one hand, aspiring for consistency in applying policies and yet on the other hand, recognising the need for exceptions based on merit in facilitating businesses.
Similarly, there are often linked but alternative “realities” between what is perceived by management and what is perceived by line staff or between expectations of external stakeholders and the internal organisation.
The second key takeaway is, as leaders, are we able to bridge the alternative realities and manage different stakeholders to a common purpose?
Seeking alternative realities can be painful. In The Matrix, the physical reality is a harsh environment without creature comforts. So much so, the character Cypher laments, “Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”
Hence, the third key takeaway: leaders will need to be resilient and stay the course in seeking and embracing alternative realities. Further, beyond ourselves, we need to carry our team along for the potentially arduous journey.
Bend ourselves to the truth
In a memorable scene, Neo meets a boy who can bend spoons and attempts to do it himself:
Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realise the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Boy: Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
All too often in work and in life, we face challenges in driving change, whether it is national transformation or keeping one’s house tidy. Inadvertently, we quickly identify those that need to change, whether it is our colleagues in another department or the children’s messy ways with their clothes and toys.
It is always easy to perceive ourselves as the victim and that it is someone else at fault that needs to change. Similarly, Einstein purportedly said that women marry men with the hope they will change but are invariably disappointed.
The wisdom of The Matrix and in particular, the spoon boy, is that change begins with ourselves. It is one thing as mentioned earlier to seek alternative realities. In order to effect change, we need to go further and “bend ourselves” to reality. In dealing with others, we may start with having different and potentially conflicting perspectives.
However, we cannot hope to champion for change in others if we do not appreciate and embrace the perspectives of those we hope to change. Further, given that change is naturally resisted, we cannot expect others to change if we ourselves do not show leadership by initiating the change ourselves – in the very least, demonstrate our own transformation as leadership by example.
It is perhaps also the best way to initiate mutual compromise by displaying a willingness to “bend” first and then inviting others to reciprocate.
Empathy to collaborate
It is said that leadership involves effecting change from status quo. However, across an organisation and beyond effecting change will certainly involve collaborating and building effective partnerships successfully, whether with colleagues, business partners or stakeholders.
We cannot expect to forge a partnership if we visibly disdain our counter-party. However, this was what was displayed when the Architect met Neo:
Architect: I am the Architect. I created the Matrix. The first matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect. It was a work of art. Flawless. Sublime. A triumph only equalled by its monumental failure. The inevitability of its doom is apparent to me now as a consequence of the imperfection inherent in every human being.
The Architect effectively views himself as perfect, and humans as inherently imperfect and inferior. With such a position, he is unable to build a partnership nor effectively engage Neo and thus, the two part on bad terms.
In contrast, in the Matrix finale, Neo successfully strikes a deal with the machines:
Neo: I only ask to say what I’ve come to say. After that, do what you want and I won’t try to stop you.
Deus ex Machina: Speak.
Neo: The programme Smith has grown beyond your control. Soon, he will spread through this city as he spread through the Matrix. You cannot stop him. But I can.
Deus ex Machina: We don’t need you! WE NEED NOTHING!
Neo: If that’s true, then I’ve made a mistake and you should kill me now.
Deus ex Machina: What do you want?
Quite unlike the Architect, Neo engages the machines with humility. Further, he offers them a solution to their immediate problem. In addition, Neo demonstrates true leadership in effectively sacrificing himself for the benefit of others (by brokering peace between the machines and humans).
Despite machines being the enemy, Neo knows what it takes to forge a partnership – understanding what the machines need and offering them a way forward is good for all in the long term (humans and machines).
How often have we truly put ourselves in the shoes of others and not only understand but empathise with their perspective and need? The lesson from The Matrix is that this is the path to partnerships, particularly with challenging stakeholders.
If anything, I hope that at least through this article, I have given you enough reason to watch the Matrix trilogy (again). That aside, the key lessons I hoped to share from The Matrix are:
1 Willingness to seek and accept an alternative view of reality, painful as the process may prove;
2 Willingness to change ourselves if we are to lead others to change;
3 Willingness to truly and humbly empathise with others, towards forging a partnership that meets both needs.
Are you willing? That ultimately is your choice (like the choice presented to Neo, to make a difference and change the Matrix).
From the final scene…
The Architect: You played a very dangerous game.
The Oracle: Change always is.
Time to leave the bubble.
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