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Apr-06-2009 07:26printcomments

Unexpected Interruptions: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

The Management Moments series by Doug Dickerson is a weekly column designed to bring inspiration to those in the workplace and beyond.
Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid & Ingrid Bergman

(CHARLESTON, S.C.) - It’s considered by many as one of the greatest movies of all times – Casablanca. World War II has engulfed Europe, reaching all the way to Rick Blaine’s Café American in French-held Morocco.

The Nazis have overrun France and are heading into the unoccupied regions in Africa – and all kinds of people are trying to escape them by way of Casablanca.

Blaine’s haven is disrupted when his one time love Ilsa, played by the luminous Ingrid Bergman, arrives in the company of a world-renowned resistance leader Victor Laszlo, whom the Nazis would very much like to get their hands on.

She’s looking for safe passage, first from Rick, who believes she jilted him for Laszlo, and then from Signor Ferrari, the owner of the rival Blue Parrott.

Casablanca was a big budget film for its day and was shot almost entirely on sound stages and the studio lot. Based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the screenwriters essentially made up the story as they went along, and no one knew exactly how it would end, which may have added to the film’s suspense and freshness.

As a bit of trivia, nobody in the film actually says the infamous line: “Play it again, Sam.” Both characters ask Wilson to play the song, but never use the precise words.

In leadership, unexpected interruptions can throw the team off if not properly prepared. Life can be smooth and pleasant one hour and the next thing you know; in walks Ilsa. So what are some ways to deal with unexpected interruptions and how should we respond?

First, interruptions happen. Blaine illustrates it eloquently for us when he says, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

Interruptions happen to all of us.

Interruptions come to us in various forms. They appear as the unexpected projects with unrealistic deadlines that are way under funded. It can be a key team player that called in sick, or an unexpected staff meeting. Sometimes an Ilsa walks in without an appointment and completely turns things upside down.

Whatever your interruption may be, it’s important to be flexible enough to adjust to the situation. If you can’t bend, you’ll break. You’ll keep from the breaking point when you learn to be flexible.

What some may see as an interruption may be nothing more than an opportunity in the making for others. Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Ilsa may look like an interruption in the beginning, but can turn out to be something entirely different in the end.

Second, interruptions can bring your team together. Captain Louis Renault said, “Round up the usual suspects.” It’s my favorite quote from the movie and I think typifies a leader who’s looking to rally the team for help. When an unexpected interruption comes our way, sometimes the best thing to do is bring the best and brightest together to tackle the challenge.

What’s the usual reaction to interruptions?

If you’re like me, a lot of time you get annoyed. There you are, you’ve found your zone, everything is clicking, and then it happens. The boss blows in, wants something done, “Now,” and the mother of all interruptions has occurred…arrgh! Can you relate?

Rounding up the usual suspects on your team can be a creative way to combat interruptions. Sometimes the team can handle the interruption, at other times it can be delegated. We should work interruptions to our benefit, not have our day ruined by them. Round up the usual suspects, take control of the interruption, and don’t let it derail you.

Finally, interruptions can be a blessing in disguise. As Rick Blaine said, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.” Unexpected interruptions may annoy us, but if we’re observant they can turn out to be something good we never anticipated.

We never know what can come from unexpected interruptions. One of my favorite inspirational stories is that of Thomas Edison. His lab was destroyed by fire on a cold December night in 1914. At the height of the fire, Edison’s 24-year old son, Charles, frantically searched for his father among the smoke and debris.

He finally found him, calmly watching the scene, his face glowing in the reflection, his white hair blowing in the wind. The next morning, Edison looked at the ruins and said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.” Three weeks after the fire, Edison managed to deliver his first phonograph.

Quite possibly, unexpected interruptions can be the beginning of something grand that we never expected. And yes, at times, they are nothing more than a nuisance. The difference maker is keeping the right attitude when they come.

Unexpected interruptions – expect them, gather the team around to fix them, and look for the blessing in disguise.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Doug Dickerson is the former editor of the Berkeley Independent newspaper in South Carolina and is currently the director of university relations at Charleston Southern University. Doug’s writing has been recognized by the South Carolina Press Association, having won awards for enterprise reporting, series of articles, and for humor column writing. Doug’s passion for communicating leadership principles and personal development is crystallized through his Management Moment column and leadership columns he writes. Read more of Doug’s columns on his blog at

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