The movie Hidden Figures shares their struggles as Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Katherine (Goble) Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) crossed gender, racial, and societal lines in a time where African-American women were considered second class citizens.
With a story like this, you know Hidden Figures has to be chocked full of leadership lessons. So, let’s dig into the leadership lessons from Hidden Figures.
Caution: Hidden Figures spoilers below
Leadership Lessons And Quotes From Hidden Figures
Great leaders help others succeed:
As Katherine Goble was growing up, her teachers saw something special within her. They knew she was brilliant.
There was a problem. The school district she was in wasn’t suited for her mental abilities. She would be held back if she stayed there.
These teachers saw her potential and knew they must help her. What did they do? Katherine’s teachers took up a collection to help her attend West Virginia State High School where she graduated at the age of 14.
Seeing what Katherine’s teachers did in Hidden Figures reinforces the notion great leaders help others succeed. They gave more of themselves so they could see someone else succeed.
What are you doing to help those you lead succeed?
Speculation on our side of the equation can be dangerous.
Paul Stafford (played by Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons) was the head engineer at the Space Task Group at NASA. As he and his team worked on getting an American into space, he realized how dangerous speculation could be to the safety of the man put into space.
Speculation may not be deadly to you or those you’re leading, yet speculation can be damaging to your organization. Make sure you have the right numbers and action steps in place.
You can be the first:
Hidden Figures took place in the early 1960’s. This was a time of segregation and racism.
African-Americans had “colored” bathrooms and drinking fountains. They had to ride on the back of the bus. And they didn’t advance to the same positions as others.
Katherine Gobles Johnson helped African-Americans take a huge step forward when she became the first Negro (term used in Hidden Figures) to join the Space Task Group at NASA.
Being the first African-American in such a prestigious group was an honor but it also carried its own set of struggles.
Katherine never thought she would be the first African-American to join the Space Task Group. You may believe there’s no way you’ll be able to do something either.
When you begin to think this way, look back to Katherine’s historic work. She didn’t think she could be the first in her world either. She was. You can be as well!
In my head, we’re already there.
Played by Kevin Costner, Al Harrison said this inspiring quote when referring to NASA sending a man to the moon. Al had a vision to see men in space.
But his vision was more than that. He already had belief that NASA had a man on the moon.
Vision only goes so far. You have to have a firm belief that your vision can be reality. That’s what Al Harrison did. He truly saw a man on the moon.
How do you need to clarify your vision so it is real to you?
Societal (or business) norms don’t make wrongs right:
Hidden Figures was set in the 1960’s when racism and sexism were still seen as normal. African-Americans had different bathrooms and women were seen as unequal to men.
This attitude carried over to how business was done. Even though this was normal, these attitudes were not right…
There are a lot of attitudes and opinions in our current times that society will tell us is right. Knowing what is right and what is wrong will help keep you and your business on course.
Show respect to others:
John Glenn was brought to the facility where the calculations were being made for his launch into space. During his visit, there were two groups: Caucasians and African-Americans.
Vivian Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst, tried to hurry John along in his visit after shaking the hands of the caucasian group. He chose to ignore her pleas to move forward.
Instead, he went to the group of African-Americans and began shaking their hands as well.
He knew they were also an integral part of his space flight and they deserved the same amount of respect as the other group.
Have you left out a group of people to recognize because you view them as less vital to the success of your team? Don’t make the mistake Mrs. Mitchell made. Be like John Glenn and respect everyone.
Katherine Goble Johnson:
I cannot work on what I cannot see.
As Katherine began working as a human computer in the Space Task Group, she soon discovered Paul Stafford had redacted most of the data she would need to confirm or rebuff the calculations.
She knew she needed more data. She knew that she couldn’t do her work without the proper information.
How many times do we hold back the information our teams need to succeed? We cannot do that. Not only does the withholding of information hurt those we’re leading, it holds back our team as a whole.
What is hidden will be revealed in time:
In our last leadership lesson from Hidden Figures, I shared how those we lead cannot do their work well if we don’t give them enough information. The way Paul had hidden the information in Hidden Figures was to use a black Sharpie to redact the information.
Katherine discovered a way to reveal the hidden truths in those documents. She held the redacted documents to the light. In doing so, she was able to see what had previously been hidden from her.
There are leaders out there who are hiding things. Whether it is to be sneaky or because they think the information isn’t vital, the reality is what we hide will be found out one day.
Apologize when wrong:
After having all of the information, Katherine was able to present a full and proper report of the calculations she was reviewing. Her review showed a mistake.
This made Paul come to a realization: He had underestimated Katherine Goble. She was smart.
He knew he had to eat crow and apologize to Katherine for his underestimation of her skills. And he did exactly that.
When you’re wrong, you’ve got to be a man. You’ve got to step up and apologize.
Adapt to new technologies:
Dorothy Vaughan was the unofficial supervisor of the African-American computer division at NASA. She had the responsibilities and duties that came with being a supervisor but not the pay or the title.
Because of this, she was on the lookout for new technologies. When she saw the IBM 790 Data Processing System being installed, she knew her and her girls needed to adapt.
She began reading about the new programming language FORTRAN. Then she set about teaching her girls FORTRAN.
When the time came, Dorothy and her human computers were able to program and run the IBM 790 DPS.
Are there new technologies you’re scared of learning? Put aside the fear and begin learning about it.
You may not be the one to run the new technology but you will know about it and know who to hire.
Take decisive action
Since the bathrooms were segregated at NASA, Katherine had to run half a mile to the colored bathrooms. This meant she was leaving her workstation for 40+ minutes every day.
Al Harrison realized Katherine was often missing and brought up her absence. Katherine then gave a rousing speech of the trouble she had to go through just to go to the bathroom.
Once Al heard her story, he went to the colored bathroom with a crowbar and knocked down the sign. He took action when a team member presented a problem.
What do you do when a team member brings up an issue? Do you wait for the problem to resolve itself or do you take action?
Paul was presenting information to his team, including Katherine. The rest of the team stayed silent as Paul spouted bits of information.
Katherine took a different route. She became curious and asked question after question.
This resulted in better information for the team to assess. Her curiosity helped the team become better informed.
Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions. The more the information is fleshed out, the better understand you can have about the situation.
Katherine Goble Johnson:
You are sir. You are the boss. You just have to act like one.
Al Harrison asked Katherine who the boss was. She replied with a stinger.
She let Al know that she recognized him as the boss. Yet he hadn’t been acting like one.
You may have been given the title of leader. Your team may even realize you are the leader. But do you recognize yourself as a leader and act accordingly?
Great leaders stand up for their team
As the unofficial supervisor of the African-American computer division, Dorothy made a gutsy, but right, move in telling Mrs. Mitchell she needed her team to come with her to the new IBM 790 DPS department. She wasn’t going to leave her team behind.
Are you going to do what’s right and stand up for those you’re leading? Let me encourage you to do so. Your team will respect you and stand behind you.
Progress is a double-edged sword.
The IBM 790 DPS could process data much faster than the human computers. This meant Katherine would be let go from the NASA Space Task Group.
She was no longer needed. Technology had replaced her.
This is where Al’s quote comes from. He was sad to see Katherine go because she was such a valuable asset to the team. Yet she couldn’t process data as fast as the new machine.
Progress is great. Technology helps us to process data faster, get products to customers faster, and overall increases productivity.
Yet technology has the other edge. Technology can make the jobs people do obsolete. Be aware of this as you implement new technologies.
Old wisdom still holds true
We live in an age that values new ideas and innovations. Because of this, we will push aside old wisdom for new.
In Hidden Figures, they were struggling to figure out how to calculate the trajectory of John Glenn’s rocket. It wasn’t until Katherine remembered Euler’s Method and thought of a way to calculate the trajectory of Glenn’s rocket.
When looking at new problems, don’t be afraid to refer to old wisdom. If the old wisdom is true, it will hold up to what you’re facing today.
It’s hard to trust something you can’t look in the eyes
The final coordinates for Glenn’s flight and landing was computed by the IBM 790 DPS. The calculations were different from what the Space Task Group figured.
This discrepancy concerned Glenn, and for good reason. His life was on the line!
He asked for Katherine to be brought in to confirm whether or not the computer was right. She crunched the numbers and confirmed the coordinates.
Trusting something that cannot be seen is hard. Whether that’s numbers in business or faith in God. We can struggle with our belief.
That’s okay. We can ask for help in confirming the information or our beliefs. Don’t be afraid to do so.
Your contributions may be hidden
Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine (Goble) Johnson worked out of the limelight. They put forth their best efforts even though they were not immediately recognized for the amazing work they did.
You may be in the same boat as Dorothy, Mary, or Katherine. You’re putting in the hours and the efforts with no recognition.
Don’t be dismayed. The work you’re doing is valuable. Push forward and do what is right.
I don’t know what else to say about Hidden Figures. Disney did a great service to Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine (Goble) Johnson in exposing these hidden figures in history.
Their work goes much deeper than what was shown in Hidden Figures.
You may not be contributing to the work of NASA. Still, your work is important. You are doing work no one else can. Don’t stop leading.
Question: Have you seen Hidden Figures? If you have, what leadership lessons did you see? If not, what was your favorite leadership lesson or quote from Hidden Figures that I shared did you resonate with the most? Share it in the comment section below.
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This essay first appeared on Joe Lalonde’s blog.
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Photo: Disney/Unsplash/Joe Lalonde/Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox