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Cool Hand Luke — Cool is not enough

Every entrepreneur should watch this movie at least three times.

I watched Cool Hand Luke on TV the other night. It is an old movie (1967) staring Paul Newman in the lead role along with George Kennedy. There is an assortment of other actors who I recognized more by their voices than their very young faces – including Wayne Rogers from the MASH TV series, and Dennis Hopper.

The story is set in 1948 at a Southern US chain-gang prison. It lives up to the label of a classic movie – enjoyable to watch and full of powerful messages.

Luke the Teenager Icon

I remembered first watching and revering this movie as an impressionable teenager. There is a lot about this movie to appeal to teenagers – non-conformity, rebellion, standing up to the man…. This time I viewed this movie as an entrepreneur and noticed some important lessons. Paul Newman as Luke demonstrates some critical elements of an entrepreneur. He also demonstrates the common mistakes that some entrepreneurs make.

Luke the Entrepreneur

Luke, like an entrepreneur, is an independent thinker, anti-authority, bold and positive minded. Luke, who earns the nickname “Cool Hand” after he wins a poker game entirely on bluffing, emanates confidence even when he holds a losing hand. Unshakable confidence is the most important ingredient in an entrepreneur’s success. Luke appears unafraid even when he is unfairly sentenced to severe punishment in the box.

Luke demonstrates the unstoppable persistence of entrepreneurs in his boxing match with the prison yard bully (George Kennedy). Luke is clearly out-matched and is knocked repeatedly to the ground, yet he persistently gets up only to be knocked down again. George Kennedy firsts warns then begs Luke to “Stay down”. Luke replies, “You’re gonna hafta kill me.” Perhaps the movie “Rocky” got its genesis from this scene. The boxing match ends with George Kennedy walking away instead of hitting Luke again. Sometimes entrepreneurs win through pure persistence.

In another demonstration of the entrepreneurial spirit, Luke proclaims, “I can eat 50 eggs.” Luke’s rational: “It seemed like a good round number.”

This is typical of entrepreneurs – believing in something only they can see – bold, attention-grabbing and pushing themselves beyond the established limits. This stunt shows the knack of a great marketer.

Why does Luke fail?

In the end Cool Hand Luke does fail – because despite all these entrepreneurial traits he lacks two critical elements.

He does not have a clear goal. He is just goofing off. He is behaving more like a teenager than an entrepreneur. He is doing for the sake of doing instead of doing to reach a defined goal.

The second mistake is the result of the first mistake – he has no plan to follow. Because he does not know where he wants to go he does not create or follow a plan. All his actions – although well fueled – are directionless, thereby going nowhere. So he is making great time but crashing.

In the final scene Luke has been hunted down and surrounded by the authorities after his daring and knee-jerk escape. From his place of rest Luke boldly proclaims the classic line, “What we have here is a failure to communicate” — a momentous line and a mistake that many entrepreneurs make. They fail to communicate with their stakeholders, team and marketplace.

As powerful and redeeming as this piece of wisdom should be, Cool Hand Luke dies in the next instant as the Captain of the prison guard shoots him.

The lesson for entrepreneurs (and maybe teenagers)

Having some of the key elements right might not be enough to win the real game. Be clear on your purpose. Develop and follow – and adapt your plan to reach your purpose.

Cool Hand Luke had all the emotional characteristics of why people become entrepreneurs. He even demonstrated potential talents. But he failed to grasp the essential choices of purpose, focus and perspective.

One more lesson for entrepreneurs (and teenagers)

Almost everything bad that happens to Luke is unfair. Life is unfair. Pick your goals and fight the fights you choose – not each and every one that others might stick in your way.

George Torok