Quotes and Leadership Lessons from The Great Train Robbery I

A Reel Leadership Article

The Great Train Robbery is a two-part British television miniseries that was first broadcast in 2013 (Currently available on Amazon Prime, Netflix, and others). It tells the story of the robbery of £2.6 million (£53.5 today) from a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London on 8 August 1963, first from the perspective of the robbers, and then from the perspective of the police. Episode one, A Robber’s Tale, details the organization and successful completion of the robbery. Episode two, A Copper’s Tale, follows the police investigation into the crime and subsequent arrest of many of the perpetrators. It is a fascinating look at two leadership styles, similar in some aspects, very different in others.  In this first article, the leadership style of Bruce Reynolds, the “Robber” will be examined.

Characters from the TV movie The Great Train Robbery

Bruce Reynolds is the leader of a small gang of thieves, a leader who is not satisfied with the £62K ($78K today) robbery at an airport – a robbery that was “supposed to be the big one” £400K  ($507K).  He immediately begins searching for a bigger score.

Quotes and Leadership Lessons from The Great Train Robbery I

1. Vision, Passion, and Goals

“You gotta dream, Chas. And dream big. My dad always said, whatever you do, make sure you’re the best. Next one, we make our mark.”

In the second part of the story, right after he’s arrested, Reynolds provides a more detailed statement.  Asked by “The Copper,” he responds, repeating some of his earlier comments but adding detail:

“You’ve got to dream big….  What are we here for if we don’t make our mark? It was never just about the cash.  It’s the buzz.  Building the team, finding the job, planning the job, carrying it out. It’s the camaraderie. Trusting other men with everything you know. With your life.”

While these three elements, vision, passion, and goals, have important differences in their applications for the strategic thinking of organizations and at a personal level for individuals, Bruce Reynolds makes use of these elements in motivating his team after the successful but disappointing robbery at an airport.  It’s about “showing the whole world what we can do.”  That may not be a strong vision statement for an organization today, but it’s clearly a vision that’s driving Bruce Reynolds despite the early disappointments.

But his crew is frustrated:  “All those stupid bloody expenses: the costumes, the wheels, the stupid bloody mustaches.”  They blame the planning, the information, the use of resources, and even each other.  But Bruce challenges them with the promises of a better life and a simple challenge:  “Next time, we go bigger.”

“It’s about getting the life you want, no, not want, deserve.  Setting yourself up for good.

House where you live, private schools for your girls.”

2. We Plan, God Laughs

Part 1 of The Great Train Robbery, “The Robber,” begins with the planning of the robbery while the execution is the focus of less than the last half of the story.  Without tipping some key points to come, except for the hint provided in the title of this point, a key part of this story is the seemingly meticulous preparation and planning done by Bruce Reynolds, his “crew,” and a team that is quickly expanded as demanded by the scope of the job.

But planning today – and clearly in this story from the 60’s – is not easy.  Marcus Buckingham, in his 2019 book, “Nine Lies about Work,” portrays the challenges of planning in a very descriptive way that applies to Bruce Reynold’s planning for the train robbery.

The thing we call planning doesn’t tell you where to go, it just helps you understand where you are. Or, rather were.  We aren’t planning for the future, we’re planning for the near-term past.”

He plans, he observes, he draws out detailed diagrams – at times lecturing his gang like a teacher, instructing them while illustrating elements of the plan on a blackboard, sometimes frustrating his gang.

“Right, any more questions?

Yeah, when are you gonna stop using that blackboard? It’s like being back at school.”

Reynold’s planning is not just challenged by his gang members.  In the first scenes of the story, after the partially successful robbery at the airport, Reynolds is challenged in the restroom of the restaurant by an officer who appears to know Reynolds and is obviously suspicious of his involvement in the airport robbery.  It’s an interaction that foreshadows the second part of the story.

“What about that airport raid, then?

Yeah, think I read about that.

…they barely got away with loose change. Must’ve been sick when they opened up the box. Imagine their faces.

Well, 60 grand, though. 20 minutes’ work.

Whoever planned it didn’t get it quite right, though, did he? Beyond his capabilities, I’d say — couple of schoolboy mistakes.”

Reynolds wants his team to be involved in preparation for the robbery.  There’s a part of his leadership behavior that shows him distant, observing, while expecting the team members to find resources, get things done.  He gets clearly frustrated when this doesn’t happen.

“We are within touching distance of a million quid, showing the whole world what we can do.  You’re standing around here like lemmings, doing nothing, expecting me to solve all the big problems.”

3. Involve the Team to Build the Team

“If we can’t do it, we find a fella who can.”

 This is the second instance during the planning part of the robbery where Bruce Reynolds is confronted with the need to build his team.  Earlier, he needed to double the size of his gang, “He’s looking for a group of professionals.”  Then he’s faced with needing specific skills, first to fake the train signals to stop the train, then needing to identify a driver for the train.  In both cases, the recruitment starts with a referral – still known today as one of the best sources of talent – then in-person interviews to assess ability and interest.  Bruce lets members of his team get involved in these efforts, both as sources for the referrals and in conducting the in-person interviews.  While it’s not directly stated, I observed that they clearly measured for today’s popular idea of “fit,” in this case, the willingness to participate in illegal activity.

4. Learning. Training, and Practice

“Now, about driving that train.

Tommy and the Train Ride?

It’s a kid’s book.

But it’s got pictures.”

For personal reasons, my interest in trains, this quote nails an interesting segment of the story.  Planning to have his brother-in-law of one of the gang members learn to drive the train, he and Bruce Reynolds set out one night to abscond an engine and “learn” how to drive it.   I’m unable to verify the truth of this episode (or the existence of the book), but the scene shows them trying to drive the engine following the description provided in “Tommy and the Train Ride.”  Obviously lacking in detail, they get the train moving only to be forced to jump off the accelerating engine because they can’t find the brake.

A less disastrous introduction to learning another critical task comes when Reynolds is being shown how to rig the train signals to stop the train.  They find a person with his “secret knowledge” about how to change the signal lights. It’s a simple solution that offers a good leadership lesson.

“Anyone could have thought of that.

But they didn’t, did they? I did.  Anyone can be complicated.  Simplicity, that’s hard.”

While the problem they faced later, losing a few moments when Bruce’s inexperienced brother-in-law fumbles with the task, it illustrates a great lesson that’s also illustrated by the struggles they have moving the train.  They “learn,” but they don’t practice.  There are several examples of planning which are not followed by execution. Over and over, the story shows the hope that the gang will get things right the first time.

Many authors have preached the value of “practice-practice-practice” from the well-known “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” quote to Beethoven’s classic: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”

5. A Leader and/or Part of the Team

Bruce Reynolds leadership seems to be inconsistent, not situational.  At times, he is encouraging his team, having dinner with his team and their wives, supporting their efforts to find the team’s needed resources.  But even at the dinner, early in the story after the success of the airport robbery, he’s aloof.  At many times, particularly during and after the train robbery, he’s away from the action, supervising from afar, often a disconnected observer.  The gang wears military uniforms for the robbery, but Richard’s “Commander” uniform is noticeable as he stands away from the group as they offload the bags of money to the trucks, as they carry them into the house.

“Wake me when you’ve finished counting.

It might be a while.

The longer, the better.”

6. The Future Will Always Surprise Us

“…but we shouldn’t be dumbfounded.”  This quote, from futurist/economist Kenneth Boulding, summarizes the results of Bruce Reynolds and his gang’s successful robbery.  They expected the robbery to yield £1 million, not £2.6 million.  This changes things – dramatically — and challenges Bruce Reynolds leadership.  The reaction of the police is changed; the reaction of the press is changed; the plans for escaping from their farmhouse hideout are changed; the gang’s reaction to Bruce’s leadership is changed, and Bruce’s reaction changes

“You were supposed to have planned for this. That’s what you do.

I didn’t think we’d nick that much, did I? It was a snatch.  A million tops. It wasn’t supposed to be the crime of the bleeding century.”

And, Then

The robbery was a success, but many things went wrong after that.  The amount stolen was so much more than expected that it sparked a major investigation plus “crime of the century” publicity.  The hideout was discovered before they could burn it down (another planning/execution mistake) and where significant evidence was found.  The robbers scattered.  Reynolds parting words to his gang:

“We nearly had it, boys.  For a minute there, it was perfect.”

Just a few minutes before that. Reynolds reacted to the police response:

“I’m all out of plans.  Flying Squads taken it over. Tommy Butler. Eight-man squad, specially assembled.

Tommy Butler, “The Copper,” with a similar leadership style in some ways, but a very different leadership style in others, takes charge of the investigation in Part II of “The Great Train Robbery.”

Note:  While “The Great Train Robbery” is a dramatization of the events before, during, and after the robbery, it has been reviewed as a very accurate portrayal, interestingly receiving high praise as “an accurate portrayal” by the “Robber,” Bruce Reynolds.

This was a guest article from James W. Schreier, Ph.D., SPHR. Jim 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.farcliffs.com
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