PSEL: The Many Roles of Captain Mancuso

When I think about how leadership is taught, portrayals from fiction are probably very influential, for better or worse. An interesting case to me is Commander Mancuso from the submarine movie The Hunt for Red October. I think it’s a helpful example for Penn State because the U.S. Navy is a complex and hierarchical organization like Penn State, although probably more centralized. It also shows the importance of putting on different hats as needed. When you really analyze the movie, Commander Mancuso is rarely giving direct orders (except when the sub is in a crisis situation). Instead he usually acting as a mentor, PR speaker and diplomat.

For anyone not familiar with the movie, the plot is about a Soviet sub commander trying to defect with his top secret sub, the Red October. He can’t safely communicate with the U.S. so the Americans have to guess his intentions and help him covertly while evading other Soviet subs trying to catch or destroy the sub .Although this situation is technically fiction, the DVD extras mentioned that Mancuso’s character was based on an actual naval commander producers observed. They were impressed at how calm he was in contrast to a traditional “drill sergeant” approach usually associated with the military.

At the beginning of the movie Cmdr. Mancuso gets a report from his sonar technicial about unusual acoustic signals (it’s the sub in stealth mode). The technician can’t put his finger on it, but he asks if it should be investigated. At this state Mancuso is a mentor – his listens to the report and advises the sonar officer to follow up since the ship is in a lull. At this stage, Mancuso is acting like a mentor helping his team work the projects they are given independently. I think it’s interesting that Mancuso trusts the sonar tech’s intuition even though nothing concrete can be identified as a real issue yet.

Later in the movie, Mancuso is then ordered to leave his position and pick up a Navy consultant (one who knows more about the sub). Mancuso follows orders even though he know it will mean losing the trail and he explains the orders to his crew. In a large organization, a leader is also a broker between his team and other groups and people in the organization. Diplomacy is key. Manucuso does vent his frustration to the consultant though. Sometimes a leader has to protect his team from the wheels of bureaucracy.

Once the Russian sub is found, Mancuso takes a more decisive role giving orders as needed, but always remaining calm. However, he is always careful to get input from the Navy consultant since he has more information. In many cases, the consultant makes the plans based on his information, but Mancuso is able to contribute his expertise about the ship. Both respect each other’s ability enough to share in the the planning phases. Finally, when he does meet the defecting Russian captain and crew, Mancuso becomes a diplomat and has to know what can or cannot be promised.

Reviewing these notes, I see that leadership is not always about giving commands, but being able to provide an environment where experts can work together to accomplish a goal. Leaders need to interpret data, communicate goals and decisions, and quickly built trust in their team and between other teams.

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