Leadership Lessons From Unstoppable

A Reel Leadership Flashback Article (Guest Article by James Schreier)

Unstoppable is the 2010 film based loosely on a real incident of a runaway train.  Generally praised for its action and described as a “great popcorn film,” it grossed $167 million.  Unstoppable starred Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes, soon to be retired – unwilling forced by the railroad – and Chris Pine as Will Colson, a new conductor distracted by his personal problems.  There are two other key players, Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) as the Yardmaster and Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn) as the VP of Operations for the railroad.

Leadership lessons from the movies - Unstopable

When a train leaves the railyard, unmanned, running at full speed, Frank Barnes and Will Colson begin several different attempts to stop the train before it would catastrophically crash on a high bridge with a tight curve in a community of 780K and located next to multiple fuel tanks.

Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Unstoppable

Message #1 – Who Do You Trust?

From the beginning of the story, the changing assessment of the situation is consistently more accurate coming from the frontlines:  Yardmaster Connie Hooper, Engineer Frank Barnes, and Conductor Will Colson.  The opposite is evident from the perspective – and decisions made – by V.P. of Operations Oscar Galvin.  His primary concern is the financial risk, a $100 million loss and a 30-40% drop in stock price.

This is true from both a short-term, right now perspective, and from a longer term, down the line.  Frank and Will assess things based on what’s often directly in front of them – plus veteran Frank Barnes has 28 years of experience with the railroad and the route they’re traveling.  The Yardmaster, Connie Hooper, quickly focuses her trust and decisions on the information coming from Frank and Will, continually willing to challenge the decisions and opinions from V.P. Galvin.

Message #2 — There Will Always Be Distractions

In today’s world, overloaded with information and challenges from multiple sources, there’s a loud call for focus.  Frank Barnes is distracted by his forced retirement, the loss of his wife, struggles staying connected with his daughters, and now, the arrival of a “new kid” he’s going to have to train.  Will Colson is struggling to find and hold a career not just a job and openly struggling with tension from a major relationship break with his wife.

Yet Frank Barnes puts his distractions aside and works to train Will, demanding he stay focused on the task at hand.

Frank: [to Will] I only got one rule. One rule only: you’re gonna do something, you do it right. You don’t know how to do it, you ask me, all right? Likewise, if you need anything from me, you’d better speak up. ‘Cause, uh, you’re the conductor. Once we get our freight, it’s your train. I’m just the guy driving it.

Just a few minutes after that direction, Frank reminds Will:

Frank: This ain’t training. In training they just give you an F. Out here you get killed.

They both put their personal issues aside to focus on stopping the runaway train.  Interestingly, the personal issues are never put completely aside. Frank is regularly thinking about his daughters, and Will is clearly aware of his wife, particularly when Frank challenges to keep going with a comment:

Will: You want to go and kill yourself, you do it alone.

Frank: Ask your wife what she thinks.

Will: Wait!

Message #3 – Risk Taking:  Is There a Hill You’re Willing to Die On?

All leaders take risks, strategic risks, risks related to seemingly routine decisions about hiring, etc.  Frontline employees also make regular decisions.  But in this case, Frank and Will are faced with life and death decisions for themselves and a significant number of potential innocent citizens.  They make the decision that this is, in fact, a track that they’re willing to die on.  But the focus is on stopping the runaway train and saving lives in the process.

Frank: [Will gives a worried look to Frank] Hey, don’t get sentimental on me. Makes me think I’m gonna die.

If it’s a hill you’re ready to die on, literally in this case or figuratively in any jobs where someone might be faced with an ethical or legal decision, it’s clearly a decision that’s worth risking your job.  It’s actually a lighter moment in “Unstoppable” when Frank and Will each react to V.P. Galvin’s promise to fire them.

Galvin: I am not going to jeopardize any more property or personnel just because some engineer wants to play “hero”! Now you stop your pursuit, or I will fire you!

Frank: [chuckles] Fire… You already did.

Galvin: Already did what?

Frank: You’ve already fired me. I received my 90-day notice in the mail… 72 days ago.

Galvin:  So, you’re going to risk your life for us?

Frank:  Not doing this for you!

Similarly, just a few minutes later:

Galvin: Maybe you didn’t hear what I just said, Colson. I will fire you!

Will: Well, that’s too bad. I was just starting to like this job

Yardmaster Connie Hooper also challenges Galvin and supports Frank and Will.  If you watch the scene with the following exchange, you’d learn how complicit Connie is in the “signal becoming weak.”

Galvin: You listen to me, you son of a b***h! You will be fired!

Frank: You’re breaking up… sorry… you’re… this garbage is

[pretends that the signal over the radio has become weak]

Connie: [smiling] Sir, I think they’re gone.

Message #4 – Staying Calm Under Pressure

Throughout the story, there are many examples of Frank, Will, and Connie remaining focused as noted above and calm under pressure.  They do get excited at times, but it’s often at the poor decisions of others not the tasks at hand, stopping the train.  V.P. Galvin is less focused and almost constantly agitated by the situation and the responses of the people on the front line.

At a couple of different points, an FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) inspector, who’s in the railyard with Connie to make a presentation to a group of children, begins to offer information, first, on the dangerous content in several tanker cars on the runaway train.  He then offers specific knowledge of the route the runaway train is traveling.  Then, at a critical moment, he offers specific advice on how to slow the train once the engine driven by Frank is connected.

Connie:  I’ve got a guy here from the FRA.

Frank:  Do you trust him?

Connie:  In a perfect world, yes!

Frank:  OK!  We can use all the help we can get.


Unstoppable is an action film with a focus of leadership demonstrated clearly by knowledgeable individuals on the frontline of the organization – and by lack of leadership at the higher levels.  If there’s a single important concluding message from Unstoppable, it’s the importance for leaders at all levels to stay close to the action.

This was a guest article from James W. Schreier, Ph.D., SPHR. James is a management consultant with interests in leadership, management, hiring, retention, and organizational culture. He also works extensively with strategic exploration and career issues. He can be found at http://www.performance-project.com.

James has also guest posted on the blog before with another Reel Leadership article. He wrote about the leadership lessons from The Polar Express.

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