Monty Python Management

When mentioning all those films for entrepreneurs yesterday, I left out the most important instructive and inspiring one of all, a movie that I often thought of during the Internet Insanity. What follows is a piece that I've had kicking about for a bit, on the management lessons of Monty Python and the Holy Grail...really. Thought I'd post it here. Feel free to borrow or quote if you are so moved!

There are many great texts and teaching tools for learning the art of management. You have Peter Druckerís Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Michael Porterís Competitive Advantage, and the wonderful thought-blockbuster Good to Great by Jim Collins.

Me, Iíll take Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Most folks consider this film as a comic trifle, a mere hilarious interpretation of the quest for the Holy Grail. Ah, but thereís so much more. Itís not just the noble inner message about the importance of shrubberies; or the delicious taunts of the furious Frenchman ("I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries.") Watching this movie can indeed make you a better manager. Dubious? Here are a handful of lessons.

Trust Yourself
Picture a plague-ridden village in which recent and decaying corpses are being picked up by a man with a cart. "Bring out your dead," cries our cadaver collector, who receives a payment from people whose, um, medieval trash he gathers.

The cart driver encounters a customer who wants a body taken away, a minor complication given that the body isnít quite ready for disposal. "Iím not dead yet," says the annoying body, adding, "Iím getting better." The cart driver refuses to take him. The customer tells the would-be corpse not to be such a baby; and finally slips the cart driver a few pence to bonk the body, formalizing the condition already established by the others.

Moral: Youíre dead only when youíre dead. And not when some VC or reporter or analyst decides it is so. How many dot-com companies were declared dead long before they ceased? How many promising technologies and applications that have been dismissed are now finding healthy and productive and profitable applications in the economy?

The Power of Mission Statements
Throughout the film King Arthur repeats the simple mission statement for the team: "Our quest is to find the Grail." Talk about a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

Of course, I can think of a number of companies with more earthly stated goals, who are nonetheless pursuing targets that are as intangible and unattainable as Arthurís. The point? I think the most important is that a big goal sets a team in motion. It provides direction, alignment, and meaning. And while itís impossible at the outset to know whether one will encounter flying cows, animated dragons, or anachronistic interruptions, itís more likely youíll get where you want when you have a clear sense of purpose. Absurd or not, it helps.

The Sanctity of Leadership
Early in the film two peasants look up to see Arthur and his page ride by their besotted village. One immediately discerns that he is a king. The other asks how he knows. "Heís the one who hasnít got shit on him."

Enough said.

Fear the Bunny. (Better yet, Be the Bunny.)
As our noble crew nears the Grail they enlist the help of Tim the Enchanter, a strange Scot who warns them of a fierce monster guarding the entrance to the Cave of Caerbannog. "A creature so foul and cruel that no man yet has fought with it and lived," warns the seer, who predicts "death awaits you all with nasty big teeth." And yet when the valiant lads reach the cave they see nothing but a rabbit. Could the foul monster be hiding behind it? No, Tim insists, the bunny is the most foul and ill-tempered thing theyíll ever see.

And so a knight scornfully walks up to make a bit of stew, only to have his head bitten off by the savage hare. "I warned you," Tim says. And he certainly did. It finally takes the Holy Hand Grenade to do away with the terrible monster.

How many current monsters have initially presented themselves as that cuddly bunny? Pretty much everyone considered the Microsoft nerds to be as harmless as the white rabbit for their early years, never suspecting that today not even the full force of the Justice Department can keep this savage bunny from ripping their bloody guts out.

Know When to Concede Defeat
On his quest, Good King Arthur encounters a Black Knight with a steely resolve to keep anyone from crossing the footbridge. He stoically tells Arthur that none shall pass, and so enters into a fierce battle with the king. Arthurís superior skills quickly enable him to cut off the Black Knightís arm. Assuming victory, our King kneels and prepares to pass. The Black Knight has different ideas. "tis just a scratch," he tells Arthur, who then proceeds to cut off his other arm. "Itís just a flesh wound," counters the belligerent and armless warrior. Exasperated, Arthur continues to truncate his legs. When finally eviscerated to a mere torso and head, the furious warrior calls after Arthur, "Coward! Come back and Iíll bite your head off."

Oh that so many flailing companies repeat the Black Knightís bold claims. The victorious Arthur scoffs at his armless and soon to be leg-less opponent, "What are you going to do: bleed on me?" Thatís precisely what many flailing companies do with their red ink: bleed it on their galloping opponents.

Know Your Favorite Color
Eventually our heroes encounter a Big Bridge guarded by a magical Bridgekeeper. In order to cross they must answer three questions. Some questions, such as "what is the capital of Assyria?", are difficult. Others must simply answer their name, quest, and favorite color. Easy enough. Easy, that is, until Sir Gawain equivocates. When asked his favorite color he replies, "Blue."

Then he changes his mind, saying, "no yellooooow." And is summarily hurled by an unseen force into a 10,000 foot gorge. It takes "out of the box" thinking to rid this problem: King Arthur turns the table on the Bridgekeeper by asking for a clarification of his question. And when the bridgekeeper doesnít know he joins Gawain below.

So know what you believe. And anticipate the tough questions. Only those who can answer the questions pass. Otherwise its down into the valley for you, laddie.

Are there enduring managerial lessons here? Why, certainly. Ultimately, Monty Python and The Holy Grail is a metaphor whose meaning is as concrete as the Holy Grail itself. That is to say, you can choose your lessons from this film. Thereís little point in analyzing why something is funny or not. Thereís funny, and thereís not funny. Likewise with so many startups or proposed business ventures, working on paper doesnít cut it. You have to make this stuff fly in the real world. And whether it flies like a Jetblue airplane or like the "vache" hurled by the furious Frenchman taunting King Arthur in our movie, success is realized in the doing not the thinking. The real proof of the pudding rests not in the recipe but the pudding.

The essence of managing is informed action: making the right decisions and carrying them all the way through to the next set of decisions that execution of these actions produces. As Donald Schon puts it, reflection in action. Experience and education and attitude all prepare you to make the right decisions and the follow through on them; but again, its all about what you produce. Lessons must ultimately prepare you to take better actions.

So roll out that Monty Python flick. Not just to learn about the nature of power, the absurd capriciousness of mission statements, and the power of loyalty. But because itís funny, to boot. Okay, Iíve got to go now. As the fey prince would say, "I think I feel a song coming on."

Posted by tom at September 9, 2003 04:57 PM

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