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 second article, the leadership style of Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler, the “Copper” will be examined.
Tommy Butler is a senior detective, close to retirement, with a reputation as “One Day,” because “that’s how long it takes you to catch criminals.” He’s assigned to the case: “I hope you can explain the bloody shambles of this so far, Butler, because your Commander Hatherill has singularly failed in that respect.” The opening scene both sets the background showing elements of the robbery and the status of the investigation, also provides indications of Butler’s “loner” style.
Quotes and Leadership Lessons from The Great Train Robbery
1. Vision, Passion, and Goals
“You understand whose money these blackguards stole?
The bank’s, sir?
The Queen, man. Her Majesty’s Mail. Every single note bears the likeness of our sovereign.
This is not just a robbery; this is an attack on the very cornerstone of England. And you, Butler, had better remedy that, very rapidly indeed.”
Butler’s passion becomes clear as his investigation doggedly pursues the robbers. But, like for many in organizations, the goals, the passion, comes from above. It’s the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke who sets the initial tone for Butler’s charge. It might be suggested that Butler simply accepts his boss’s command, with his quiet, “Yes, Sir,” attitude. As the story unfolds that quiet commitment proves it’s much more, the passion of a driven police officer.
2. Know Your Talent
While Bruce Reynolds (The Robber) used his gang members to recruit the needed new members to his team, Tommy Butler operates in – and leads with – a very traditional structure. With a simple command, “Let’s get started,” he names the officers he wants for the investigative squad. He clearly sees the skills he wants and makes the assignments quickly. His instructions are simple and clear:
The whole squad is ready to give priority to train robbery inquiries.
If you need something, you’ll get it. If you don’t, tell me.
Daniel Goleman (“Emotional Intelligence”) describes focus as a key leadership skill. “Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership. The talent here lies in the ability to shift attention to the right place at the right time.” Tommy Butler exemplifies a singular focus to the task at hand, as seen throughout the story, at the expense of any engagement with the members of his team. This focus is visibly – silently – seen as Butler slowly walks the train tracks where the robbery occurred, then similarly studies the property and house at the “farm” used by the gang.
In today’s social media/press filled world, Tommy Butler’s attitude toward press involvement is unusual but not surprising for its day. Simply stated: “I don’t talk to the press.”
4. No Work-Life Balance
In Tommy Butler’s squad, there’s no work-life balance, for himself or his team. He’s the first to arrive, the last to leave – his loner, unmarried lifestyle obvious. His expectations are clearly stated to his team:
Early turn (shift) is officially 9am till 5pm. I’ll expect you here till at least 10. Late turn is 2pm till 10pm. I’ll expect you started by nine.
Yeah, nice one.
You think I’m joking? You try turning up late and see where your bollocks end up.
Tommy Butler’s approach – his separation from his team – continues even when his team openly objects to the long hours. When Detective Inspector Frank Williams approaches Butler on behalf of the team, it’s met with a harsh response – to the entire team:
Frank: The lads. We were just, they were just you know, some of them are dead on their feet, exhausted. You’ve been working us, them, evenings and weekends and then there’s the wives and young kids. They never see ‘em.
Butler: (Shouted to the entire team) Getting a bit much is it? What do you want, a bit of time off on me? All expenses paid? A week in the Costa del Sol? Dinner out, drinks on the house, tans on tap? While you’re feeling sorry for yourselves, that lot are spending the money they nicked. They’re living better than you. And you want time off?
5. Just the Facts
Jack Webb brought his somber, deadpan, “just the facts” attitude to “Dragnet,’ labeled by many “the most influential police procedural ever.” Tommy Butler displays this same style in “The Great Train Robbery,” a style backed up by multiple versions of the story. Like “Sergeant Friday,” this dogged determination digs out the facts and pieces together the details of the crime, the aftermath, and the identity of the gang members. He charges his squad with getting the information and, as expected, he personally takes the lead both in the field and during interrogations.
We’re five days behind, and we haven’t even started. Talk to your informants. Who was away those days? Who’s been missing since? Who’s been keeping an unusually low profile? Snouts (Informants) will know. The whole squad is ready to give priority to train robbery inquiries.
6. Key People Need to KNOW You Trust Them
On the one hand, Tommy Butler’s firm direction, active participation in all aspects of the investigation seem to show he trusts his team – as he continues to push them. On the other hand, he silently observes from behind the windowed, closed door of his office. His next in line, Frank Williams, suspects that Tommy doesn’t trust him, suspects that Tommy thinks he’s too close to some of his informants. Their “styles” are clearly different.
Williams had contact with Bruce Reynolds (The Robber) and correctly suspected him of the airport robbery. This connects to one early scene where Butler challenges Williams.
One question then. If this Reynolds was the potential ringleader of the airport robbery and if you think he’s the brains behind the train robbery and if you had a tail on him, how come we haven’t got a bloody clue where he is? I want him in my cells, Frank. Now.
It escalates in a long scene just a few minutes later, after Frank invites Tommy to join him and the squad at a local pub. Some highlights of the conversation, revealing both Tommy’s separation from the team and the trust issue with Frank Williams.
Frank: Morale booster for the long hours. Do you fancy it?
Tommy: Work to do. (Sighs) Something bothering you, Frank?
Frank: Why’d you bring me in on this if you don’t trust me?
Tommy: Who says I don’t trust you?
Frank: They told me working for you would be like this. I didn’t believe them.
Tommy: An investigation lives on information. Shared information. Otherwise, we can’t do our job.
Frank: But you, you keep everything close to your chest. Why?
I am bringing you first-class information. And you are giving me nothing. Not your top names, not what evidence is coming in. You won’t even come for a bloody drink. You are leading a squad, Tom. A squad works best together.
Tommy: Lads’ll be waiting for you, Frank.
After dismissing Frank’s feedback, another scene finds Tommy called to his bosses, who are dissatisfied with the progress of the investigation.
Tommy: Frank, come with me. Don’t speak unless I tell you and don’t say anything that contradicts me.
Frank: Are you sure you want me in there?
Tommy: Course I want you in there. You’re my best officer.
But then, during the meeting, where the controversial idea of publishing photos of all the suspects is strongly opposed by Tommy, he looks to Frank for support: “Are you just going to sit there and say nothing, Frank?” After being dismissed and losing their arguments against the idea, Tommy and Frank share an interesting moment:
Frank: Are you all right?
Tommy: I want some air. You fancy having my job one day, Frank?
Frank: Never thought about it.
Tommy: Bollocks you haven’t. Doesn’t matter who you are or how high you go, there’s always a wanker boss.
Despite the “you’re my best officer,” the tension between Tommy and Frank, what I see as primarily because of the autocratic structure plus Tommy’s loner style, continues. It comes to the forefront. It’s a year after the conviction of most of the gang – with Bruce Reynolds still free — after the Butler is called to the Home Secretary Office to discuss his scheduled retirement. Frank Williams is waiting outside to be advanced and take over Tommy Butler’s job.
HS: 30 years’ service, MBE. A fine career, Tom. Congratulations. Here’s to a well-earned retirement.
Tommy: I don’t want it. …I want to stay on. I want your dispensation to keep going. The job’s not done…
HS: I’ve got Frank Williams all lined up to take over. He’s waited long enough as it is.
Tommy: Not until I get Reynolds. I want to see it through. …Frank’ll understand.
(Outside the Office)
Frank: We’re going to miss you, Tom.
Tommy: You’re going to have to be patient a while longer.
Frank: What d’you mean? You’re retiring. You’ve done your time.
Tommy: Like I told you, Frank, there’s always a wanker boss.
Tommy Butler doesn’t tell Frank before the meeting that he plans to stay on. He doesn’t solicit Frank’s support, likely knowing he wouldn’t get it. And he dismissively responds to Frank’s reaction.
Reynolds was arrested in 1968, five years after the robbery. Tommy Butler returns to the planning issue in some of his final words to Reynolds.
You know what amazes me? You had no plan. From the second you took the cash, no plan at all.
Expected to join the squad to celebrate the final piece of the crime being solved, the guys stand together in a local pub while Tommy Butler walks away alone – a final testimony to his loner leadership style.
Note: There have been multiple books written about “The Great Train Robbery.” This dramatization has been generally praised, even by Bruce Reynolds shortly before his death, as accurate. It is certainly an interesting series of multiple insights into the importance of planning/execution and leadership style.