Margin Call: How Do We Choose?

Snowflakes are very small. Under certain conditions, their cumulative weight starts an avalanche. This is also true of our decisions in the workplace.

Margin Call has a wonderful cast, great acting, suspenseful story — and music that seems like a character itself.   Thumbs up.

With a takeaway that can form and inform thinking about our workplaces, it fits the bill for one of my Movies About Work.

Margin Call gives us 36 critical hours in a financial institution that might just blow up.

We meet a group of bankers at a moment of truth.   Having profitably sold securities based on a proprietary financial model, we see them as they discover their model to be invalid.

Past decisions approaching avalanche strength now threaten to take down the financial markets.

The bankers face the classic challenge:  when there are no good choices, how do we act?

Margin Call gives us the bank’s entire food chain, from front line analyst to the board chairman, contending with the crisis.  (A member of the cleaning crew also makes a memorable cameo.)

They’ve got to act, even though there’s no viable solution that preserves the bank’s financial standing and reputation.

Also lacking?   A central mission that could guide their decision.   Some characters grasp for a greater good, even allegiance to their firm.  Yet the foundation is not there, and individual motivation becomes the default.

It’s hard to pin down a villain.

Margin Call is about a banking crisis.   The story is universal.   Consider the mining, consumer pharmaceuticals, and energy industries.  Some of these situations ended well.

Others, not so much.  If you’re not squeamish, check the FDA recall list.  These stories unfold every day, in every type of institution:  don’t forget the church.

The film opened last week to positive reviews.  The opening night crowd at Lincoln Center burst into applause as the credits rolled.

Director J.C. Chandor spoke afterwards, with a couple of notable takeaways.

He chose to set his first feature film in a financial institution partly because he grew up with the culture; his father was a banker, and Chandor knew the language.  There was also a budget constraint:  it would have been more costly to research an unfamiliar culture and get it right.

(Indeed, not many films catch the nuances of today’s corporate life so well.  A lay-off scene unfolded with such painful truth that it played almost as comedy.)

Another financial challenge:  he met with pressure from potential partners/backers to change the story line.   Spoiler alert:  you won’t see the bank’s Chief Risk Officer (played by Demi Moore) making out with any of the other characters.

This really goes back to the moral of the story, so to speak.   Integrity means staying true to your story, regardless of the financial implications.  (Thank you J.C. Chandor, for a believable portrayal of a woman in today’s executive suite.)

Mission is a story.  As leaders, it’s our job to see that it’s a story that is told often, told truthfully, and told in a way that our people can use to create meaningful and coordinated action.

This is a leader’s imperative.  You can look to history to see what happens when leaders don’t step up.  Or you can check today’s paper.

Wall Street, New York by dflorian1980, used under Creative Commons License.

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