Leadership Lessons from Butch and Sundance©

If you don’t know what the title is referring to, then you’ve never seen the Oscar-winning and iconic Western starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).[1] The movie tells the story of Wild West outlaws Robert LeRoy Parker (aka Butch Cassidy – Paul Newman) and his partner in crime, Harry Longabaugh (aka the Sundance Kid – Robert Redford) as they run from the law in search of a more successful criminal career in South America. More specifically, the movie is about Butch and Sundance’s criminal exploits, friendship and partnership filled with lots of humor. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s definitely worth watching, and if you’ve seen it before, it’s time to watch it again.

What has not been written about (until now) are some of the key leadership and business lessons that can be gleaned from the movie. Whether it’s a curse or a blessing, I see lessons in movies – often from less than obvious scenes – and there are several lessons worth sharing from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

One of the most famous scenes in the movie occurs after Butch and Sundance have been trying to evade a posse (with no luck), and they find themselves trapped on the edge of a cliff high above a raging river with the posse getting in position. If you haven’t seen the scene or don’t remember it, take a quick view here. Before sharing the rest of the story, keep one thing in mind – before this moment Butch had suggested that they leave the United States and move to Bolivia (which they had not done).

Butch (Newman):       Kid – the next time I say, “Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,” let’s go someplace like Bolivia.

Sundance (Redford):        Next time. Ready?

Butch (Newman):       [Looking into the deep canyon and the river far below] No, we’ll jump.

Sundance (Redford):        Like hell we will.

Butch (Newman):       No, it’ll be OK – if the water’s deep enough, we don’t get squished to death. They’ll never follow us.

Sundance (Redford):        How do you know?

Butch (Newman):       Would you make a jump like that you didn’t have to?

Sundance (Redford):        I have to and I’m not gonna.

Butch (Newman):       They’ll kill us!

Sundance (Redford):        Maybe.

Butch (Newman):       You wanna die?!

Sundance (Redford):        [Waving his pistol at the river far below] Do you?!

Butch (Newman):       All right. I’ll jump first.

Sundance (Redford):        Nope.

Butch (Newman):       Then you jump first.

Sundance (Redford):        No, I said!

Butch (Newman):       What’s the matter with you?!

Sundance (Redford):        I can’t swim!

Butch (Newman):       [Laughing] Why, you crazy – the fall’ll probably kill ya!

For those of you who haven’t watched the scene, they then jump into the river below (and obviously survive). So what’s the lesson – or lessons?

Lesson 1: Take Action on Your Ideas – As Butch notes at the outset, “Next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,’ let’s go someplace like Bolivia.” Butch and Sundance didn’t act on the idea, and as a result they not only lost the opportunity (in the moment) but they also found themselves with very few options (trapped on a cliff above the river). Life and business are the same way. We think that options and ideas have an unlimited shelf life, but in fact they do not, and we have no realistic way of assessing that shelf life. Some ideas and opportunities will be there tomorrow, but many times those opportunities have changed (they’re gone, the risks have changed or the opportunities have changed). This is a leadership reality that always requires us to think, discern and act with a sense of urgency.

Lesson 2: Your Fear is Often Misplaced – When Sundance eventually admits the reason he doesn’t want to jump (“I can’t swim”), what he’s really saying is that he’s afraid that he will drown if he jumps in the river. Butch plays a great leadership role by seeing that this risk is not that significant. While there still is a risk (dying from the fall), he helps Sundance understand that what he’s afraid of is the least likely scenario. This is a common trap for us – our fear stops us from taking action, but the thing we fear (or think we fear) is not even likely to occur. Once we get clear on the risk, the fear often dissipates or even disappears.

Lesson 3: Face Your Fear and Own Your Choices – While Butch and Sundance felt like they were trapped on the cliff, they still had a choice – fight it out or jump. While neither option was very pleasant, they still had choices left despite the situation. This is a key lesson – you always have options. In addition, courage is not the absence of fear but rather the willingness to take action despite your fears. In this case, Butch and (especially) Sundance chose to take the leap despite their fears because that choice was preferable to the other choice (fighting it out). While many of our day-to-day decisions are not life or death, they are often still very significant, and we can learn a great deal from Butch and Sundance about facing our fear and owning our choices.

Yes, the cliff scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is funny—one of many entertaining scenes in a great movie. More importantly, it offers us several life and leadership lessons that we can use in our everyday decision-making. The next time you feel trapped by circumstances, like your options are limited (or non-existent) or you’re afraid of what lies ahead, remember Butch and Sundance on that cliff and their courageous leap into the unknown. The lessons will serve you well!

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid won many awards and distinctions, including the following:

  • 4 Academy Awards
  • 11 of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written
  • Top grossing film of 1969
  • 34th top-grossing film of all time
  • Selected in 2003 for preservation in United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”


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