The Leader’s Illusion

Instinct, a 2014 film about the interactions of a young, ambitious psychiatrist (played by Cuba Gooding) with a convicted killer (brilliantly enacted by Anthony Hopkins), highlights many leaders’ common illusion.1

A Test for Control

As the plot unfolds (spoiler alert!), the killer becomes the healer. In one unforgettable scene Gooding’s character provokes the inmate by claiming that he is in control of the prisoner’s fate. Without warning, the killer grabs the psychiatrist, locks him in a stranglehold, places a piece of duct tape over his mouth, and says, “You’re in control, huh? Now who’s in control? You? Am I? The guards outside? The warden in his office?”

The prisoner places a crayon and piece of paper on the table, and says to the psychiatrist, “This is a very simple test. Pass or fail. Life or death. Now you write on this paper, what have I taken from you?”

The psychiatrist scribbles, “Control.”

The inmate tears the paper away and says, “Wrong, You never had control. What do you control for sure? The volume on your stereo? The air conditioning in your car? What else?”

As he continues to hold the psychiatrist in a death grip, the inmate says, “OK, try again. What have I taken from you? What have you lost?”

The psychiatrist writes out the words, “My freedom.”

Again the inmate rips away the paper and yells, “You’re a fool. You think you were free? When you go the gym in the afternoon. When you wake up in the middle of the night sweating? What is it that has you all tied up in little knots? Is it ambition? You’re no mystery to me, boy. I used to be you.”

Then the inmate says, “One last try. What’s one psychiatrist less in the world? I’m already deep in the pit. What can they do to me? What have you lost? What have I taken from you?”

The psychiatrist finally writes, “My illusions.”

The inmate releases him, rips the duct tape from his face, and says, “Congratulations. You passed the test after all. And you’ve lost nothing but your illusions – and a little bit of skin.”

The Leader’s Illusion

As leaders, the illusion of being in control can claim primary residence in our psyches. Then unexpectedly a potential killer gets a grip – a financial crisis, a major conflict, a family meltdown, or any number of other threats – and puts us to the test. Will we pass the test? Perhaps this is THE test.

My test came recently in the form of a medical diagnosis that will result in open heart surgery and news from a major donor that funds are no longer available. Hopefully I’ll come out the other side of these experiences having lost just “a little bit of skin.” But my big takeaway is emasculating a primal illusion: I am not in control, and I never was. And this reality is stoking a deeper flame of confidence within me to trust more fully the sovereign control of our powerful and faithful Creator.

1Instinct – Illusions Scene

Leave a Reply