Management tips from Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes

On this day in 1947, Howard Hughes guided the Hughes H-4 Hercules, a giant flying boat, over Long Beach Harbor.

Few billionaires flew as high as Howard Hughes, the infamously eccentric business magnate who made hugely influential contributions to the worlds of aviation, film, engineering, and medicine. Couldn’t we all learn something from someone who both set records as a pilot and won an Academy Award for best director?

Here are just a few management tips drawn from the life, career, and words of the trailblazing Texan-turned-obsessive recluse.

  1. Don’t be afraid to be difficult

To put it simply, Hughes was not an easy person to work for.

Take his 1930 aviation war epic Hell’s Angels. The first director he hired, Edmund Goulding, quit because he so hated Hughes’ “hands-on” production style. After another director didn’t work out, Hughes wound up directing the movie himself.

When he decided actress Greta Nissen didn’t work for a role, he paid her, fired her, and instead hired an unknown teen he had personally discovered: Jean Harlow. And when a stunt pilot deemed a sequence too dangerous, Hughes simply piloted the plane and performed the stunt himself (it was indeed too dangerous, and Hughes crashed and fractured his skull).

Though it might not have been worth a head injury, Hell’s Angels wound up earning double what it cost to make and was soon recognized as one of the first classics of cinema’s sound era. It also put Hughes on the map as a filmmaker. 

  1. Don’t give an inch

The famously stubborn Hughes once said: “Once you consent to some concession, you can never cancel it and put things back the way they are.”

In other words? Stand your ground.

Hughes was often at odds with Hollywood censors. In 1932, he produced Scarface, a Chicago gangster movie loosely based on the life of Al Capone (it was later the basis for Brian De Palma’s 1983 famous crime epic).

After multiple demands by censors to dilute the film’s violence, Hughes eventually told director Howard Hawks to shoot it as is. “Screw the Hays Office (censors – make it as realistic and grisly as possible.”

Similarly, in 1943, 20th Cenury Fox refused to release Hughes’ Western The Outlaw due to Jane Russell’s revealing outfits. So, Hughes schemed to have his managers call churches and women’s groups to protest the film, thinking that the publicity would generate interest.

He was right. The film was a huge hit when it finally came out in 1946 and established Russell as a major star. 

  1. Foster and feed off competition

“Play off everyone against each other,” Hughes once said, “so that you have more avenues of action open to you.”

That philosophy probably won’t make your office holiday party any friendlier, but Hughes himself seemed to thrive on cutthroat competition – even if he was competing against himself.

After establishing himself as a filmmaker, the plane enthusiast set his first landplane airspeed record of 566 kilometres per hour in September 1935, flying in his custom-built Hughes H-1 Racer.

In the ensuing years, he went on to establish a new record in transcontinental airspeed and flew around the world in a new record time (more than 3 days, 19 hours).

  1. Never stop innovating

Hughes’ mind never seemed to stop whirring, even when he was (frequently) recovering from the injuries caused by his passion for aviation.

In July 1946, Hughes suffered his second near-fatal plane accident. After crash-landing in a residential neighbourhood in L.A., he was left with a crushed collar bone and chest, cracked ribs and severe burns, among other injuries.

So, how did he pass the time in recovery? He decided to redesign his bed. Eventually, he created a new version complete with running water, adjustable settings and 30 motors.

Hughes had recovered by then, but his tweaks helped pave the way for the modern hospital bed.

  1. Don’t be afraid to roll the dice – but you might pay the price

Before Las Vegas became a glittery gambling icon for the world’s high rollers, Hughes saw potential in the remote desert locale.

He first moved to the penthouse of the Desert Inn in 1966 for tax reasons. When the hotel’s owner tried to boot Hughes, he simply bought the place. He then doubled down on Vegas and snatched up other casino hotels, an airport, and a bundle of undeveloped land.

Of course, Hughes’ big gambles didn’t always pay off. Famously, the aforementioned flying boat – the Hughes H-4 Hercules – was a hugely expensive debacle. Eventually nicknamed the Spruce Goose, the vessel only flew once, with Hughes at the helm.

Still, he didn’t try to bury his costly misstep. Instead, Hughes paid millions to keep the Hercules housed in a climate-controlled hangar until his death.

It’s now displayed in a museum in Oregon, so like many of Hughes’ ideas and innovations, it lives on.


See also:

6 management lessons from Hugh Hefner

What NASA can teach us about hiring

Management lessons from NASA’s James Webb


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