Lessons for Leaders from Hollywood Writers and 19th-Century Weavers

This article was originally published by Fast Company here.

Writers in the film and television industries have recently gone on strike as their unions attempt to negotiate with studios on a number of issues. With the advent of streaming services and the massive disruption they have caused to the economic models of the entertainment industry, it’s no surprise that writers are trying to figure out how to protect their earnings moving forward.

However, along with arguing over how to get residual payments from the likes of Netflix, the writers are also looking for guarantees on how the industry can use (or not use) artificial intelligence (AI). Writers are afraid that they will no longer be needed when a producer can log into a commonly available generative AI service and create an entertaining script in seconds. Their position seems to be, “Agree you’ll never use AI or else we’ll…”—well, I’m not quite sure what the “or else” is, but they are obviously—and understandably—afraid.

They aren’t the only ones.  Recent surveys show that more than a third of people are seriously concerned AI could replace them in their jobs. Goldman Sachs has said that generative AI “could expose the equivalent of 300 million full-time jobs to automation.”


Hollywood writers are far from the first people to protest new technology that threatens to eliminate their livelihoods. A friend recently reminded me about the story of Ned Ludd.

Legend is that Ned Ludd was a weaver who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Ludd became famous when, as a young weaving apprentice, he wrecked a textile machine that could be used by an unskilled laborer to do the job for which he was training. Weavers during this time were highly skilled artisans who trained for years to learn their craft.

During the early 1800s, these machines began to proliferate in Great Britain. The weavers began to see demand for their services go away as more factories sprung up using these machines to produce high-quality, inexpensive textiles. A group of weavers decided to protect their jobs by breaking into textile factories and destroying the machines. Inspired by Ned Ludd, they began to call themselves “Luddites.”

Historians don’t know if Ned Ludd was an actual person or an invented tale designed to inspire a movement of violence. While Ludd may not have been real, the actions of the Luddites certainly were. Luddites attacked and burned factories, occasionally exchanging gunfire with guards called out to protect the factories. The British government responded by making machine-breaking a capital offense and deployed several thousand soldiers to quell the uprising. The violence didn’t end until the spring of 1812 when several Luddites were killed during an attack on a mill.


Looking back today, we sometimes laugh about old stories of technological disruption. “Anyone worried that we don’t have buggy-makers anymore?” is a popular statement I hear when people speak about the evolution of work. And it is true that these things tend to work out over time. Technologies eliminate some kinds of work, but they also create new types of jobs. In general, this kind of progress is good for humanity, as evidenced by the incredible reduction in world poverty over the past 200 years.

I believe Hollywood writers demanding studios never use generative AI will be no more effective than the Luddites destroying textile mills. Ultimately, societies adapt and move on and are generally better off for it. But understanding all of this doesn’t make it easier for the people impacted in the moment. They are scared, and people acting out of fear can sometimes do scary things.


As a leader, it is important to be purposeful in moments of uncertainty. Your role is to eliminate uncertainty if you can and to help people navigate it when you can’t. In March 2020, leaders were more visible than ever as they helped their teams process what was happening in a pandemic-impacted world. We are entering a similar situation now as numbers of our colleagues begin to have great uncertainty about their future.

While you may not be able to resolve everyone’s fear, you can experience it with them. Actively and purposefully engage your team in discussions about AI and other potential disruptors. Discuss what you know and admit what you don’t know. Finally, allow your team to be a part of the discussion and not a victim of it.

Your job is to show those you lead the path to your desired destination. And to do that, you must lead even when you can’t clearly see the road forward. When it is foggy and hard to see, you can’t walk too far ahead or your people may lose sight of you. It is in moments like these that you must walk alongside them.

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