Nico Toscani Isn’t Walking Through That Door (aka Steven Seagal on Leadership)

When I was in college, my roommates and I were almost obsessed with a film you’ve probably never heard of:  Above the Law starring Steven Seagal (it was actually his film debut).  We picked it up at the local movie rental store on a whim.  We soon became obsessed with Seagall’s character – Nico Toscani.

Who wouldn’t love Toscani?  Born in Sicily, raised in Japan, he was a master in Aikido.  After kicking some serious behind in Vietnam as a covert operator with the CIA, Nico had become disillusioned with the Agency.  He just couldn’t do the dirty work they asked him to do.  So, he naturally moved to Chicago to become a cop. 

The movie isn’t really very different from a thousand action films.  Toscani, is the lone rebel hero – never outnumbered no matter the situation.  I remember in particular our favorite scene: 

Toscani walks into a seedy bar in a bad Chicago neighborhood and starts asking some tough questions of the local “clientele.”  Within minutes, Toscani is surrounded by a bunch of tough guys brandishing weapons.  Now, you and I know that the average man in this position gets drubbed mercilessly by the gang and most likely hospitalized or killed. 

But Nico Toscani is not an average man. 

What ensues is one of the great scenes of that movie (and dare I say in film history?)  Nico instead of getting stomped, dishes out some of the most effective Aikido moves you have ever seen.  When he is finished, every dirt bag is incapacitated and the bar is a mess.  Then Nico gets the key piece of information he was asking for.  It’s pretty obvious, Nico Toscani is above the law.

Problem solved.

Except in real life leaders aren’t above the law.  In fact, there is an iron-clad law that leaders will never rise above:  problems are not solved by lone wolves or super heroes.  In fact, the best way for a leader to solve a problem is to leverage multiple inputs from a team. 

Leaders, especially leaders in America, have been conditioned from a young age to seek the answer from “THE” expert.  It is part of the American fabric and culture.  This is why super hero films are so popular.  The world is about to end – and suddenly in flies a mutant with super powers and the world is saved.  The criminals have taken over the city?  Don’t worry, Clint Eastwood just strode into town with a Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum, and he will have this straightened out in about 2 hours.

In times of crisis do we need centralized decision-making?

Throughout my career I have seen a couple common responses from leaders when they are faced with a crisis:

1.  Get me the expert!  

 In this scenario, the leader is faced with a complicated problem; he turns to his staff and asks, “Who is the expert on problem Y?”  The staff, usually eager to get out of the room blurts out a name.  “Jones!  Jones has been the expert on problem Y for years now!”  The exasperated Boss, leans back in his chair, rubs his temples and says – “somebody get Jones in here ASAP.  The rest of you guys hit the road.”

Here’s what happens next.  Jones shows up and comparatively speaking he is an expert on Y.  But he is one guy with limited knowledge of all the other processes that touch Problem Y.  He knows next to nothing about issues X and Z.  But, he’s the expert on Y and that is what he is paid for.  He comes up with a flawed solution.  But the Boss, tired of talking about Problem Y is happy.  He implements The Jones Solution. 

It works for a short time, but unfortunately, what Jones didn’t know about issues X and Z comes back to bite him.  Soon the Boss has two new problems – problems X and Z.   And of course at the next meeting, the leader asks his staff “Who are the experts on X and Z?!”

2.  This is too important for the minions.

The second response is another common human response to limited information or challenging problems.  The leader decides he has to go it alone.  The leader finds that as he talks to his subordinates none of them have the answer.  They all kind of have a partial idea – but by and large his subordinates seem lost and overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem.

So, the leader takes a deep breath and says, “I’m going in alone.” 

After all, the Boss is smart and he has an awful lot of experience.  Why can’t he solve the toughest problems?  Isn’t that what he is paid to do?

Unfortunately, in this scenario, the Boss isn’t like Toscani.  He gets absolutely drubbed by the boys in the bar.  In other words, he makes some really bad decisions.

 The Magnificent Seven

There is another great movie you should check out.  It’s called the Magnificent Seven.  In that film, a small western town is terrorized by bandits.  They are robbed, beaten, and raped.  The townsfolk pool their resources and hire a team to help them.  They don’t go get the Pale Rider – they go and get seven of the toughest men they can find.

Then, those seven men team together, using their combined strengths to mask their individual weaknesses.  Together the seven are stronger than the bandits.  To put an almost perfect bow on this illustration, the seven hired guns actually train the defenseless townspeople to stand up for themselves.  The seven actually multiply their effectiveness by including the helpless town in “problem solving.”  The film ends with the towns people realizing they no longer need the Magnificent Seven (although it didn’t prevent Hollywood from making “The Magnificent Seven Ride Again” – look folks, no illustration is perfect).

In Times of Crisis, Devolve Power Down

In times of limited information, when you are facing a crisis or a difficult problem – resist your urge to act like Nico Toscani.  If you are facing uncertainty, that is no time for the senior leader to start making more decisions.  Exactly the opposite is true.

Difficult problems are difficult because no one person has the answer.  Instead, the crowd of people in your organization – the regularly everyday people – holds the key.  No, not a single one of them has the answer.  But, they all have a small part of the answer.  They all hold some puzzle pieces.  Some of them may have more pieces than others; some may have more ability to put those pieces together – but as a group they have the picture.

This is where the leader steps in and does the truly difficult task of leading.  He, like the Magnificent Seven, helps these towns-people solve their own problem.  He patiently guides them, trains them, and most importantly believes in them.   That is what the truly heroic leaders does, because he understands that devolved decision-making and problem-solving is really the American way.

Don’t believe me?  Check your constitution some time.  The Founding Fathers were incredibly smart.  So smart that they understood that the difficult task of governing a country was best executed at the lowest level – not in a centralized model where a few “experts” called the shots. 

The American Way of Leadership is based on a very simple truth – the wisdom of the people is better than the wisdom of the elite few who don’t hold any of the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle.

So it is with your organization.  Resist with all your strength the idea that you have the answer to your organization’s problems.  If you can actually solve the problem by yourself – it never was a tough problem to begin with.  The toughest problems require wisdom from all your team – pooled together under the tutelage of a leader. 

That is how you clean up a barroom full of bad guys.


Admit it – you are dying to watch the movie trailer for Above the Law:

You know why I love you?  Because you don’t live the way other people live


-CJ Cheetham

4 thoughts on “Nico Toscani Isn’t Walking Through That Door (aka Steven Seagal on Leadership)”

  1. I love this movie and was obsessed with Steven Seagal for a long time after! I enjoyed reading this !


  2. Was given your blog site from one of your former Airman, MSgt Doug Williams and you eloquently blog about many of the leadership issues I’ve personally observed and written about on FB. You point out some very interesting obstacles faced daily, but I’d like to add a wrinkle if you will.

    I recently experienced a leader who knows ALL the right things to say; I have an open door policy, I respect SNCO’s and their opinions, take care of your Airmen; you know, all the catch phrases associated with good leadership. However, if his door was open, he wasn’t there, he was out doing “Wing” business even though he was a Sq CC. If you did actually catch a glimpse of him, he had to run. The only way to speak to him was to wait around outside his office like a stalker, well after 1700 or later, if you’re lucky. He would solicit SNCO’S advice, just to shoot everyone down and expect everyone to carry out HIS plan. If you challenged him you were quickly talked down and made to feel stupid. On several occasions SNCO’s attempted to take care of their Airmen but he was quick to place blame on everyone but himself and his flawed leadership.

    It’s very difficult to function as a leader when the Senior person says all the right things publicly, because we’re all taught the correct or AF way to lead; but their actions contradict what they say. It seems SNCO’s are losing their voice because promotion DEPENDS on Senior Rater. Promotion is possible without stratification, it’s impossible without SR. This leader in particular held SR over everyone’s head to leverage followership. I’m a firm believer in leading with “why”, inspirational leadership. That’s lost on many in today’s AF.


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