Jack Reacher and the Call to Leadership 


Tom Cruise as Lee Child's fictional retired military policeman Jack Reacher. The character can teach readers a lot about leadership, says Dr Ralph Bathurst.


This is the first in a series of five articles on leadership by Dr Ralph Bathurst, who is the academic coordinator for Massey’s Master of Advanced Leadership programme. Each week he will tackle an aspect of leadership through the lens of a favourite fictional character, Jack Reacher.

I’m a Jack Reacher fan. It’s not that I’m attracted to his derring do; and I do not want to exchange my somewhat conventional life for his, tackling corruption and dodgy dealings by local city elders, business owners and government leaders. What keeps me coming back to the Lee Child’s novels is the way in which Reacher thinks. 

I’ve recently finished Night School for the third time because, for me, it contains such an authentic version of leadership.

As an educator, the title immediately captured my attention. I have studied and taught in various night schools, and I work with students at Massey University who are studying leadership while carrying on their day jobs as managers and directors. I admire people who study part time while holding down a job, and I was keen to learn how Jack would respond to going back to the classroom.

As aficionados will remember, Jack Reacher worked as a military policeman and in his retirement uses those skills to solve crimes that have either been covered up or remain unresolved. And this is the primary lesson that Reacher has to offer: leadership is about addressing unknown unknowns, and using the forensic skills of a gumshoe to solve them. It’s first about seeing clearly what is in front of us, and second taking action. 

Dr Ralph Bathurst, leadership scholar at the Massey Business School.


Good leaders see what's hidden in plain sight

Night School returns us to 1999 when Jack was still a military policeman. The so-called night school he is sent to turns out to be a briefing session, and Jack becomes part of a team of three operatives. His detective abilities and his ability to move freely in military bases around the world give him the right credentials for the job. 

This is where the story gets interesting. An American is selling a high-value item for $100 million to a group of Middle Eastern terrorists. But the team can’t figure out what could possibly be worth that much and yet be unidentified. Nothing of such high value could be hidden successfully without someone, somewhere, being in the know. 

It turns out to be as simple as a pair of trousers taken from army stores, yet as dangerous as a nuclear weapon falling into the wrong hands. Reacher’s pants are ex-army, yet because they were not part of an inventory, the army had no knowledge of their existence. As with the pants, so with the nuclear weapon: it had somehow been deleted from the official inventory, and therefore could easily change hands without anyone knowing. It was hiding in plain sight.

Here’s the thing about leadership. It’s about seeing what is actually there; knowing the world in all its uncomfortable complexities, rather than relying on second or third-hand stripped back versions. Leaders must grapple with everything they see and avoid the trap of ignoring issues in plain sight. 

Being able to see requires patient enquiry, and then determination to act, even though acting may mean going against official orders and protocols. This is the call to leadership that Reacher’s adventures inspire.

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Related articles

Jack Reacher’s Thoughts About Leadership
Jack Reacher and Leading Within Your Comfort Zone
Jack Reacher and Leading by Taking Action
Jack Reacher and Thinking Inside the Box

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