"I'm Your Huckleberry" and Other Leadership Lessons from Val Kilmer

The world is divided into two groups of people:  those who love the movie Tombstone and those who won't admit it.  I happen to fall into the former group so I was pretty wound-up to run across it one late night over the 4th of July weekend*. 

It's a classic retelling of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the ensuing Earp Vendetta Ride that's really a tender love story at heart.  Against the backdrop of Tombstone, Arizona we're presented with gamblers, gunslingers, law men, and mustaches (all real according to the film's director.)  Supposedly all of the shots of lightning in the film are real too, but that's not nearly as impressive as the mustaches.

If you're like me, you believe that Kurt Russell telling that cur Ike Clanton to deliver his famous warning is enough to make the movie a solid 7.5 on its own, but Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday turns the film up to eleven.

But, this isn't a movie blog and LinkedIn won't let me publish a film review so I'm going to tell you five things I learned about leadership from Val Kilmer and Doc Holiday on a late Saturday night over a holiday weekend.

1.  Be in Your Prime

In a scene so good it gives us two of our five, Doc is confronted at the faro table by Johnny Ringo.  Our first close up of Doc shows him pale and sweaty, barely able to open his red-rimmed eyes or lift his head as he coughs.  But then Johnny asks if he's retired and Holliday stands straight, looks Ringo fully in the eyes and says:

"Not me. I'm in my prime."

Everyone knows that Doc is not in his physical prime as he's been drinking and is battling tuberculosis.  But that doesn't matter.  He's talking about his will.  The refusal to back down from any obstacle that all good leaders have.  Johnny Ringo isn't going to tell him that he's retired and if he has to go through him to prove it, that's exactly what he'll do.  And they respect him for it.

2. Age Quod Agis

I'm taking a little license with this one.  It comes from the same exchange, but from Johnny Ringo, not Doc Holliday.  The literal translation of this Latin proverb is "do what you do." Ringo means it as an insult, telling Holliday that being past his prime, drinking is what he does best. 

This happens to be one of my favorites for what it says about commitment.  It's simple and powerful:  Do what you do.  Whatever you're doing, whatever your job or assignment, do it all the way.  Take it seriously and be in your prime.

It also says something to me about purpose.  If you truly do what you do, there's no passing the time or just doing this until something better comes along.  It speaks to doing work for a reason and staying on a path toward a goal. 

3.  Be a Huckleberry

In one of the most quoted scenes, Ringo issues a challenge.  He's looking for a fight - for blood as a matter of fact.  He wants to know if anyone has the guts to take him on.  Holliday steps from the shadows and tells Ringo:

"I'm your huckleberry.  That's just my game."

At first blush, it might seem like #3 and #1 are saying the same thing, but if being in your prime means having a strong will, this one is about being willing.  At some point we're all faced with a problem that might not really be ours to solve.  Or a project that is just waiting for a leader.  The huckleberry asks for the challenge.  Volunteers where no one else wants to and gets the job done. 

In the film, the Earp brothers refuse to fight.  Doc volunteers and Ringo is bailed out by his friends.  Challenge accepted.  Challenge defeated. 

4.  Die With Your Boots On

Figuratively, of course. History and the movie both agree that Doc Holliday's last words were surprise that he was going to die in bed with his boots off.  Because of his lifestyle, no one expected him to go that way. 

This lesson isn't about going down in a blaze of glory, but it is about fighting through obstacles until the very end.  You're not always going to win, but it's much better to die figuratively as a huckleberry than with your boots on the sidelines. 

Which segues nicely into the last lesson.

5.  Sometimes You Meet a Daisy

According to the news reports from the Tombstone Nugget, Holliday really did look point-blank at Frank McLaury and his gun and tell McLaury to "Blaze away.  You're a daisy if you have [got me]."

Even the huckleberry doing what he does in his prime with his boots on the ground is bound to come up short once in a while.  When it happens, acknowledge that the challenge was a daisy, learn your lessons, and move on to the next one.  Thomas Edison said that he ran across at least 1,000 daisies in his life. 

Do that and prove Johnny Ringo wrong once and for all.  He'd have Doc believe that "eventus stultorum magister," or experience is the teacher of fools.

But we know that it's genius that learns by experience.


* So, this is a little fib.  I didn't run across it on TV.  I have it on DVD.  And, truth be told, I watched the best parts again Sunday morning.