Problem Solvers Anonymous

What’s the greatest 'guy movie' ever made?

By Scott Sedam | May 31, 2002


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What’s the greatest “guy movie” ever made? I’ve asked this question in a lot of workshops, and I get a variety of answers, mostly depending on the age of the participants. But we can figure this out.

First, let’s think of a real “man’s man.” Sylvester Stallone? Too short. Charles Bronson? Too obscure. Mel Gibson? Too cute. Tom Cruise? Way too cute. Arnold Schwarzenegger? Close, but he’s a foreigner. Clint Eastwood? Well, he had it going before that Bridges of Madison County thing (please!).

No, it’s gotta be John Wayne — The Duke. He had the size and the swagger, drank tequila straight from the bottle, and kissed women with the finesse of a Mack truck yet always left them melting in his arms. (How’d he do that?) And the Duke never got “sensitive” on us. Oh, he showed us a soft side a time or two, but even in Rooster Cogburn he shot up the countryside enough to make up for it. The Duke never did a chick flick.

And what is the greatest John Wayne movie ever made? Again, a lot of nominations, but from a guy’s perspective it has to be Hellfighters, the Red Adair story.

Remember Red Adair? During the 1950s and ’60s, Life and other magazines regularly featured Red and his boys marching right up to the roaring inferno of an oil-well fire and putting it out — with nitroglycerin! Now that’s macho. Can you imagine the guts it takes to do that? And can you fathom what it would feel like to have John Wayne play you in a feature film? An impossible dream, but for a real man that’s about the ultimate. As good as it gets.

Just what does Red Adair represent? For my money, I’d rate him as the greatest problem solver of all time. He took on problems — big, hot, scorching, life-threatening problems no one else could touch — and solved them. For that he got fame, fortune, his own Learjet and The Duke playing his life on the silver screen.

Guys love this because problem solving is what we do best — or imagine we do best. We love to walk into a mess and straighten that sucker out. Nothing feels better, and just as important, nothing gets rewarded more. Think about it, and you’ll agree that the greatest accolades go to those who solve big problems. They get recognized, remunerated and promoted. They get written up in the local business section and in Fortune magazine. Business schools write case studies about them. Consulting firms are built around them.

But what of the poor, humble problem preventers? Do we ever hear about them?

Let’s go back to Red Adair. He has long since retired, but his firm lives on. Yet you don’t hear much about the company anymore. Why? Well, with the notable exception of one Middle East dictator torching wellheads in Kuwait before having his fanny spanked by the U.S. armed forces, you just don’t hear about many oil- and gas-well fires anymore. They rarely happen because about 20 years ago some unheralded engineers toiling in some back office in Tulsa, Okla., invented a spark-arresting device for wellheads. (Imagine John Wayne making a move about that. How boring.) Spark arresters and better pressure- control devices along with the oil companies finally wising up and getting serious about safety have effectively eliminated about 90% of all oil-well fires.

What about the other 10%? Back in the 1990s, Red started getting old and tired and realized he had used up about 8.75 of his nine lives. So he decided to share his knowledge and switched to designing advanced firefighting equipment and consulting. Now, anybody can put out these fires.

Don’t worry about Red and his sons — they’re doing all right. I’m sure that now and then their egos long for a good old-fashioned hydrocarbon nightmare in West Texas, but their lives are a lot safer and a lot cleaner, and they usually get to be home for dinner.

But how many of us have made the transition? How many of you spend the bulk of your workday preventing problems? Or are your days filled (like mine is today) with jumping from fire to fire, putting out the blazes that regularly flare up?

Admit it: It feels good to put out fires. It gets the adrenaline pumping. And at the end of the day, you know you have really done something. It is positively addictive. And research shows it is not just mentally addicting, but there is a physical component as well. We become addicted to the rush of last-minute deadlines, month-ends, quarter-ends, year-ends, cleaning up a 30-item punchlist in the two days before close, getting to the meeting just in time and getting home just too late. As an addiction, it’s not much different from smoking, alcohol or narcotics. And the stress does similar damage to our bodies and our companies. But we keep at it because it is what we know. It is what we do. It is what we are rewarded for. Prevention doesn’t make you famous.

About 10 years ago, I knew a guy who worked for a big home builder and figured out that the Home Owners Warranty system was going under long before anyone else did. Nobody believed him. They weren’t having “problems.” But he knew what he knew, so he got a small team together and spent a year convincing the company to leave HOW, create a new warranty program and get the entire field converted. Many people resisted, but he never backed down. They finished the conversion in September.

In October, HOW went bankrupt, leaving hundreds of builders holding the bag. While other competitors saw closings stopped dead or pushed back during the fourth quarter, this builder sailed along like nothing had happened. Our “prevention specialist” saved the company tens of millions of dollars.

Bonus time came around in January, and guess what? He had to fight to get his expected low-five-figure payout. Really fight. The company had a decent year, and although he knew he had saved the money, he couldn’t prove it. When you just prevent money that was never budgeted from being spent, you don’t get much credit for it.

Imagine if this builder, like most, had been caught with its warranty pants down. With closings grinding to a halt across the country, our prevention specialist would have been asked to play Red Adair. He would have thrown a team together, stopped everything in its tracks and spent a month frantically throwing something, anything, together. The year must be saved! Pure stopgap, but the sales start flowing again. Then they would have spent the next three months making sense of it, fixing it and doing it right. Massive rework. Pure insanity. But we have a hero, and he gets written up in the company newsletter and hailed as an example of self-sacrifice for the good of the firm. Amen.

Do you think our hero would have had any problem getting his expected bonus — and more — in that scenario?

Problem solving, like firefighting, is exciting. It makes headlines. It makes heroes. It pays big bucks. But it costs even bigger bucks. The rub is, when you are buried in problem solving, it takes so much time and energy that it seems to be impossible to start thinking about and working on prevention. But you have to do it anyway. And you all know what the first step is. As in any addiction recovery program, you must admit you have the problem and ask for help.

Are you addicted? Is your organization addicted? Join Problem Solvers Anonymous today. Prevention lies just over the horizon. Nobody will make a movie about your life, but the life you live will be much happier, more productive and undoubtedly longer. Your employees, your customers and your family will thank you for it.


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