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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and ChangeOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)


Famous for...

  • Winning the top five Oscars – best film, director (Milos Forman), actor (Jack Nicholson), actress (Louise Fletcher) and screenplay.
  • Its attack on dictatorial authority – Milos Forman lost his parents in the Nazi concentration camps, and his native Czechoslovakia was invaded in 1968 by Russia (then the Soviet Union).


Based on...

American Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Wall Street star, Michael Douglas bought the film rights and co-produced the film.


Set in...

1963 in a mental hospital in Oregon, USA.



Milos Forman.



Five – the top five Oscars including best film  (see above).


Key charactersOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), mental patient (pictured right).

Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), head nurse of his ward.


The story

Rebellious and exuberant, Randle McMurphy (pictured right) fakes mental illness to escape from a prison work farm after being convicted of statutory rape (sex with a 15-year-old girl).

He arrives at an Oregon mental hospital . The other patients in his ward include:One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

  • Chief Bromden (a huge Native American believed to be deaf and mute).
  • Martini (pictured right).
  • Billy Bibbit (a nervous stammerer).
  • Charlie Cheswick.

The ward is run by the cruel control freak, Nurse Ratched (pictured right below), whose rules and authority are immediately challenged by McMurphy.One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

Dr. John Spivey:

  • suspects that McMurphy is faking mental illness to miss prison work.
  • vehemently defends Nurse Ratched.

She is astounded by the ward’s vote (organized by McMurphy) to watch the baseball World Series. She refuses to let them watch it

With Chief’s help, McMurphy:

  • escapes and hijacks the hospital bus. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change
  • picks up his girlfriend, Candy.
  • takes his ward’s patients on a fishing trip (teaching the anxious Cheswick, pictured right, to drive the boat and  showing them how to fish).

At the hospital he also gets them playing basketball, and they beat the orderlies. Dr. Spivey thinks that McMurphy is dangerous but Nurse Ratched persuades him to keep McMurphy in the hospital rather than returning him to prison.

McMurphy later discovers that he can be detained in hospital beyond the 68 days left of his prison term.

Nurse Ratched loses control of the ward, despite:

  • stopping the patients’ gambling.
  • rationing their cigarettes.

McMurphy smashes her office window to get Cheswick’s cigarettes and, in the ensuing fight with an orderly, he is defended by Chief.One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

In retaliation Nurse Ratched sends McMurphy, Cheswick and Chief for electric shock treatment (pictured right). As they wait, McMurphy gives some chewing gum to Chief who thanks him, proving he can hear and speak after all.

McMurphy acts like a zombie on his return from the treatment but erupts into his characteristic laughter to show he’s back to normal.

But he:

  • tells Chief he plans to escape.
  • bribes the night orderly to let in his girlfriend, Candy, her friend, Rose, and some alcohol for a Christmas party.
  • takes the drunken orderly’s key.
  • delays his escape by arranging for Billy Bibbit to sleep with Candy. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

They all fall asleep and Nurse Ratched arrives the next morning to discover a naked Billy in bed with Candy (pictured right together).

Billy has a mother fixation, so Nurse Ratched viciously mentions his mother’s name, filling him with shame. He commits suicide just as McMurphy is trying to escape out of the window.

He angrily strangles Nurse Ratched, leaving her gasping for air as he is punched and dragged away by the orderlies.

That night McMurphy really is a zombie after a lobotomy operation (removing the brain’s front lobes), ordered by Nurse Ratched.

Chief kills him out of mercy and escapes.


Lessons for leadership and change

 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

1. Autocracy is awful

Nurse Ratched is a disastrous dictator who ignores the needs of her patients.

She refuses to let them watch the baseball, and her viciousness destroys Billy Bibbit and McMurphy.


2. Empowerment energizes

McMurphy inspires the other patients to take responsibility for their own lives by:

  • freeing them from Nurse Ratched’s tyranny.
  • teaching them skills like fishing and basketball. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

This gives them hope and more confidence to:

  • overcome their problems.
  • become better human beings.

After fooling everyone that he's deaf and mute, Chief is so inspired that he:

  • speaks again.
  • finally escapes to a new life.

 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

3. Humanity is holy

McMurphy is a hero because he respects every patient’s right to be treated with dignity and kindness.

He sacrifices his own life for others and gives up his girlfriend, Candy, to help Billy.


4. Conformity and conservatism kill change

McMurphy shows the others that Nurse Ratched’s rules are destroying them and should be changed.

She is prepared to do anything (however bad) to:One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

  • stop him.
  • keep control of the patients.

After discovering that Billy and Cheswick are in the hospital voluntarily, McMurphy tells them they should leave, because they are no crazier than  ‘normal’ people.


5. Great leadership inspires othersOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

McMurphy’s charisma, vitality and determination give the others the spirit to fight Nurse Ratched.


6. Power corrupts

Nurse Ratched abuses her power.

She is Machiavellian. In other words, she is prepared to do anything (even sacrifice Billy) to keep her power.

 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Leadership and Change

7. Know your enemy

McMurphy fatally underestimates Nurse Ratched. He wrongly assumes that a return to jail is the worst that can happen to him.


8. Teamwork is terrific

McMurphy gets the patients working as a team, united in their battle against Nurse Ratched. He teaches them the importance of:

  • enthusiasm.
  • having fun together (e.g. fishing and playing basketball).


Key quote on health

I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this, McMurphy.

I don't like the idea of taking something, if I don't know what it is, McMurphy.


Key quote on empowerment

You're not a goddamn looney now, boy, you're a fisherman, McMurphy (to Martini)


Key quote on management and bureaucracy

Rules? Piss on your f--king rules,Miss Ratched!, Cheswick.


Key quote on sex

Next woman takes me on’s going to light up like a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars!, McMurphy (on the effects of electric shock treatment)


Key quote on society

They just worked on him, the way they're working on you, Chief (to McMurphy) 


Two film websites to recommend

1. filmsite.org (run by Tim Dirks).

2. aveleyman.com (run by Tony Sullivan)

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