The Leadership Lessons of “Hidden Figures”


If you haven’t seen Hidden Figures, you need to because of the many great messages in the film. My interest in seeing it was because it was about NASA and early space program which I have been nuts about since I was a small child. Growing up, I used to write regularly to NASA asking for the latest space photos and mission reports.

However, Hidden Figures also has great lessons on being a leader. The three women featured in the film demonstrated amazing leadership skills; especially in a time and culture that was quick to ignore the three because of their race and gender. Despite the shocking and cruel treatment these women faced, they were still highly motivated and enthusiastic supporters of the NASA missions. They were true pioneers for America thanks to their leadership.

SPOILER ALERT! Read no further until you have seen the film. I will discuss pivotal scenes from the film. You have been warned. SPOILER ALERT!

How to Convince Senior Management to Give You and Your Project a Chance

Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, is one of the three women featured in the film. She is a well-educated woman in the sciences who aspires to be an engineer at NASA. Unfortunately, the NASA program for beginning engineers rarely accepts women and Mrs. Jackson is further discouraged by new requirements that applicants have graduate credits.

Mrs. Jackson perseveres by petitioning a Virginia court to allow her to take night classes in engineering at the local all-white high school. When she appears before the judge, she reminds the judge of his proud record of firsts. As she tells him, he will face many cases that day. For which case that day does he want to be remembered? Her arguments are a brilliant example on how to persuade decision makers by reminding them of the impact of their decision and how deciding in your favor is a win-win for both of you. Sometimes, the best leadership is in knowing how to lead your leaders.

True Leaders Stay Focused on the Mission

The star of the film is Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, who is the brilliant mathematician that provided the critical calculations for the Mercury flights in the film. When Mrs. Johnson is first assigned to the engineering group, she is quickly discriminated against by the roomful of white male engineers. She is presented with a coffee pot labeled “Colored” and must walk (or sometimes run) half-a-mile to the “Colored Ladies” restroom. She is also openly resented by the engineers as she verifies their calculations.

Despite these demoralizing actions, Mrs. Johnson continues to work enthusiastically and provides the critical insights to send John Glenn into America’s first orbital flight. At first, she was quiet and took the daily indignities, but in one powerful scene, she exploded about the injustices she faced. Realizing how valuable she was to the missions; her boss took away the barriers (sometimes literally with a sledgehammer) and supported her when it counted. It was Mrs. Johnson’s devotion to ensuring accurate calculations that made the Mercury missions possible. Through everything she faced, she stayed focused on the missions.

 Leading by Teaching and Serving Your People

I must confess that my favorite woman in the film was Mrs. Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer.  She was the informal supervisor of the “colored” computers (the women who did the mathematical calculations back before NASA had digital computers). In the first scenes of the film, you can literally see her getting her hands dirty as she attempts to fix the car the three women commute in. This one scene establishes her as servant-leader. What I liked about her was a sense of professionalism she instilled in her employees while still being accessible and human.

Early in the film, we learn that NASA is installing one of the early mainframes to replace the human computers. Mrs. Vaughan, concerned about the future of her employees, teaches herself about the new mainframe and how to program in FORTRAN. She then teaches her employees how to program so they will be prepared for the new digital computers.

In a pivotal scene when Mrs. Vaughan is finally offered the supervisor position, her first question is about what will happen to her employees. She refuses to become supervisor of the new digital computer group unless she can take her employees with her. Her insistence on taking her people with her is inspiring as Mrs. Vaughan represents great servant leadership throughout the film.

Hidden Figures is a great film on so many levels and well worth seeing. The film is a great history lesson and good social commentary. The most significant message of Hidden Figures is how leadership on all levels can make great things possible such as flying into space or breaking societal barriers.

Bill Brantley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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richard regan

Great post. I saw this movie as well and could not keep thinking about how NASA in 2017 is consistently in the top 5 of the best places to work in the federal government and lauded my commentators on this site as one of the best engagement roles models despite being dominated by males and white people in their workforce. I guess diversity and inclusion is still a hidden figure there.