Life of Brian is more than just a tale of a man who would be hard-pressed to turn water into mud being hailed as a Messiah. It also has key messages for aspiring leaders, says Rhymer Rigby.
Monty Python's Life of Brian caused something of a stir when it was released: religions, you see, especially popular ones, are not considered legitimate targets for satire. Luckily for the Pythons, the Archbishop of Canterbury isn't allowed to dispense fatwas and the film went on to make stacks of cash.
All this should not, however, distract us from the movie's many managerial messages. Brian is Christ's contemporary and his life parallels that of Jesus. The important distinction is that Brian's life is a case of mistaken identity, which casts him in the role of guru and leader. Thus, a man who would be hard-pressed to turn water into mud finds himself hailed as the Messiah. Brian's leadership is hampered by his involvement in an overly bureaucratic terrorist organisation whose goals include the overthrow of Pontius Pilate.
These two strands of Brian's life - red tape terrorism and mistaken deism - come together in a denouement of exquisite incompetence that results in our hapless hero's crucifixion. Lessons for aspirant leaders abound.
After watching the Sermon on the Mount, Brian and his mother head off to a nearby stoning. In this case, the unfortunate wretch has been sentenced to die because he was overheard uttering 'Jehovah', the Lord's name - a capital offence. Naturally the assembled are anxious to get to the business in hand but there are no clear guidelines in place for what constitutes best practice during the actual stoning process. Nobody knows who should cast the first stone, whether saying 'Jehovah' is acceptable in the context of a quote, and so on. In the confusion, John Cleese, the unfortunate master of ceremonies, suffers the same fate as the condemned, a tragedy that a few simple procedural parameters could have averted.
As many e-mail users have found to their cost, cracking jokes to business acquaintances from different cultural backgrounds is a risky business and one that can easily cause unintended offence.
Thus, when Pontius Pilate, an imperial sophisticate, asks a provincial guard to explain a comment of Brian's, the unfortunate fellow replies: 'It's a joke, sir, like "Biggus Dickus".' What the guard doesn't realise is that Biggus is in fact an old friend of his Roman boss. Deeply unamused by the guard's gaffe, Pilate has him removed from his post and sent to wrestle rabid animals. Meanwhile, the uncouth soldiery lose their focus when Biggus' wife (Incontinentia Buttocks) is mentioned, and in the resulting kerfuffle, Brian escapes.
Having already repeatedly told his devoted followers, 'I'm not your f***ing Messiah', only to have them show up for worship the next morning, Brian tries a different, more positive tack. 'You don't need to follow me, you don't need to follow anybody - you're all individuals,' he patiently explains. To which they respond in unison: 'Yes, we're all individuals.' Brian knows that, historically, staff have tended to look to their bosses for 'magic solutions', just as bosses have tended to look to consultants.
He realises that with today's flatter corporate structures the desire for change and the leadership that make this happen must come from individuals.
For those used to a command and control structure, however, this process can be difficult.
'Right, crucifixion party,' says the Roman centurion to the assembled cross-carriers, 'we'll be on show as we go through the town, so let's put on a good show.' The centurion knows that his employer, the Roman Empire plc, is hardly the most popular company in town and that much of this antipathy stems from a feeling that big multinational businesses care little about the communities in which they are located.
But he also knows that the local population loves a good spectacle. So he sends the popular crucifixion pageant - many of whom are local boys - through the centre of town. In this way the inhabitants feel the company cares about them and they have a stake in what it's doing.
When Brian (who by now has been well and truly crucified) sees Reg, his erstwhile fellow freedom-fighter, and his colleagues approaching, he naturally assumes that they have come to rescue him. Instead Reg congratulates him on his martyrdom and they sing a rousing chorus of For he's a jolly good fellow before departing.
While Reg's first inclination may be to put a ladder to Brian's cross and cut him down, as a more visionary leader, he realises what his company has been lacking is a figurehead to give the employees something to aspire to. As a near-martyr, Brian will be of passing interest. As a genuine, dead martyr, he will add lasting value as something the whole workforce can rally round and draw inspiration from.