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Jack Reacher and Thinking Inside the Box 

Tom Cruise as Lee Child's fictional retired military policeman Jack Reacher. The character can teach readers a lot about leadership, says Dr Ralph Bathurst.

This is the second in a series of five articles on leadership by Dr Ralph Bathurst, who is the academic coordinator for Massey’s Master of Advanced Leadership programme. Each week he will tackle an aspect of leadership through the lens of a favourite fictional character, Jack Reacher. 

Read Article 1: Jack Reacher and the Call to Leadership

I often hear the claim: “We need leaders who can think outside the box!” As if there is a box that is somehow imprisoning us and constraining our ability to think critically and creatively. We believe that if only we could release ourselves from the shackles and break out, then we would find creative solutions to the many unresolved problems within our organisation. 

How does Jack Reacher think when facing a problem situation? An incident in Night School gives us a clue. The novel has Reacher and his side-kick Sergeant Neagley going to Hamburg, Germany, in search of an American who is selling a nuclear weapon to Middle Eastern terrorists.

Reacher, Neagley and their local German counterpart Griezman, have located the apartment where the American is living, and suspecting he is inside, ring the doorbell only to hear its gentle chime echoing back. The American is not home. They want to carry out a thorough search, but they don’t have a warrant giving them legal access. In spite of Griezman’s protests, Reacher will not be deterred and decides to force his way into the apartment, but without causing any damage which would alert the American to them having been there. 

How will he gain entrance? By thinking inside the box.

Dr Ralph Bathurst.

Seeing leads to acting

Before I explain, let’s get philosophical, and I’m sure Reacher would agree with this side-trip because he fancies himself as a bit of a moral philosopher, as we will discover in another article.

As with most philosophical schools, the so-called Continental Philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were interested in exploring and describing human experience. Their ideas of present-at-hand and ready-to-hand offer interesting insights. One explains everything that we know about the world and the other describes what to do with what we know. 

To be present-at-hand is to be able to see all the elements that make up our life-world. It is a desire to know everything that we possibly can about our world and to let that curiosity drive our questions. Ready-to-hand gives us the tools to make decisions and to take action. One thing leads to another. Seeing leads to acting, and both are necessary leadership skills.

Constraints can lead to creativity

So, let’s return to the box that we are encouraged to think outside of. The Continental Philosophers would say, “Hold on, why are you trying to think outside your box? You need to know your world deeply. You have to think inside your box!”

Creative people know this very well. For an artist, creativity is not found outside, but inside the box. When an artist knows the constraints within which they must operate, then they are free to create.  

Think about a painter and the constraints they must confront. Canvas size (large or small), medium (oil or acrylic), tool (brush or knife) are just a few of elements that box them in. And this is not to mention the genre and style that will bound their work. All the famous painters throughout history worked within boxes, and many produced works that were revolutionary.  

So, we return to Jack challenged with getting inside the apartment without breaking anything. Following our reasoning, he must think inside the box and recognise what is ready-to-hand. 

Let’s pick up the story with the team standing outside the door.

Griezman said, ‘We need a warrant.’

Reacher said, ‘Are you sure?’

‘In Germany it is essential.’

‘But he’s American. And we’re American. Let’s do this the American way.’

‘You need a warrant also. I have seen it in the movies. You have an Amendment.’

‘And credit cards.’

‘What for? To buy something? To pay someone off?’

‘For ingenuity and self-reliance. That’s the American way.’ 

The credit card, with its strong yet flexible plastic, can be repurposed and used to slide around the tongue of the locking mechanism and, with some pushing and pulling on the handle, open the door. Reacher had to first know what was available to him – what was present-at-hand – choose among all the options available – what was ready-to-hand – and then take action. He had to think inside the box.

Creativity and innovation are highly prized abilities not only in business but in solving the many social and environmental problems that threaten our future. The world needs leaders who can act wisely and decisively, leaders who can think inside the box and devise creative solutions within existing constraints.

Learn about the Master of Advanced Leadership Practice

Related articles

Jack Reacher’s Thoughts About Leadership
Jack Reacher and Leading Within Your Comfort Zone
Jack Reacher and Leading by Taking Action
Jack Reacher and the Call to Leadership

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