Monday, December 19th, 2016 | By: Mike Donahue

Timeless Lessons from “The Paper Chase”

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One recent Sunday, I joined the legion of adults ignoring NFL football, choosing instead to watch a rerun of the movie The Paper Chase. The story line chronicles the life of a first-year Harvard Law School student named Hart as he and his Ivy League classmates play out a painful-to-watch sequence of trust issues. The movie was a hit when it was released, launching the careers of co-stars Timothy Bottoms and Lindsay Wagner, while making a star of veteran character actor John Houseman, who earned an Oscar for his role as Professor Kingsfield.

Three things about this 43-year-old movie held my attention better than another uninspired performance by the Chicago Bears:

  • First, it brought back memories of a bygone era. Dime cups of coffee, pay phones, typewriters and ashtrays on every desk created a vivid picture of how the world has changed in four decades.
  • Second, the sight of exam blue books made my stomach knot just as it did when I was a graduate school student way back when this movie was being filmed.
  • Last, watching the movie through my 2016 lens made the story line predictable, and the characters seem uninteresting and poorly developed. And yet the movie struck a chord with scenes that confirmed that I had indeed matured over the decades as The Paper Chase progressed from theater distribution, to video stores, cable TV and streaming on YouTube.

One of the movie subplots involves the interactions Hart had with the five members of his law school study group. I concluded these interactions were worth writing about because of how dysfunctional the members were. I’m certain I didn’t give this a second thought when I saw the movie for the first time at age 26. In contrast, I doubt the same could be said for Wilfred Bion.

Dr. Bion was the British psychotherapist who wrote the book on what makes some groups powerful and others train wrecks. It’s possible he saw the movie when it was released, six years before his death in 1979 at the age of 82. Had he seen the movie, I suspect he would have had three issues with how Hart’s study group functioned:

1.) Low trust ran rampant. Each member of the study group pledged to create an outline of his notes from one of the six classes the group members took together and share those notes with fellow members. Because trust never grew within the group, members doubted that each would keep his commitment. The distrust they felt made their time together less productive.

2.) Members didn’t invest in the group. We invest in groups that matter to us by taking risks. One form of risk-taking is self-disclosing. Members of Hart’s study group didn’t feel safe enough to disclose their fear of “failing,” i.e., not earning high grades in Professor Kingsfield’s contracts class. Consequently, group members never had the opportunity to help each other master the class material to the fullest.

3.) The group never addressed real issues. Have you heard the expression, ignoring the elephant in the room? If the members of Hart’s study group had, you wouldn’t have known it. They danced around the distrust they felt for each other and never addressed it. By the time finals rolled around, the group had splintered; one member had dropped out of school, two others had pulled out of the study group, and Hart and a fellow named Ford had abandoned the group to form their own two-person subgroup.

No group can perform to its fullest if there isn’t trust among members. Without trust, members will be reluctant to self-disclose, confront or hold each other accountable. Low trust makes it exceedingly difficult for a group to fulfill what Dr. Bion called its core purpose. That’s why I see building trust as my No. 1 responsibility as chair of three leadership peer groups. This old movie made this responsibility abundantly clear to me.

Watching The Paper Chase convinced me that old movies might be a rich source of material for future blogs. Stay tuned.

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