All Articles Leadership Development A management lesson Marx Brothers style

A management lesson Marx Brothers style

The Marx Brothers had a unique way to deal with a recalcitrant movie executive, and modern leaders can learn from it, John Baldoni writes.

4 min read


Marx Brothers

Bettmann/Getty Images

john baldoni 2022

Sometimes you need to stand up for yourself!

Groucho Marx, the legendary comic actor, told a charming story to TV talk show host Dick Cavett about how his brothers did just that. The Marx Brothers received an invitation to come to Hollywood to meet with Irving Thalberg, the head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The brothers arrived promptly at 10 a.m. for their scheduled meeting. However, Thalberg was in meetings, and they were asked to wait. Finally, at 5 p.m., they were told that Mr. Thalberg could see them. Nothing doing, said Groucho, and the brothers walked out.

After all, the Marx Brothers were already big stars in vaudeville and on Broadway. So who was this motion picture executive to keep them waiting? Another meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. But, again, Thalberg was busy and couldn’t meet them. He then left his office. Harpo went to the MGM commissary and came back with raw potatoes. So the boys, the Marx Brothers, entered Thalberg’s spacious office, barricaded themselves inside by putting file cabinets in front of the doors, and proceeded to cook the potatoes in the fireplace. 

When Thalberg returned to his office two hours later, he was let back in only to find the brothers munching on their potatoes, stark naked. As Groucho said, Thalberg “never kept them waiting again. Everyone else was afraid of him … because he had such prestige and power at MGM.” Thalberg found the office incident amusing. “And he liked [the brothers] because they didn’t take anything from him,” said Groucho.

Groucho had enormous respect for Thalberg, the boy genius of MGM. He was always meeting with writers on one of a number of pictures he was producing, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary to keep people waiting. But not the Marx Brothers.

Two lessons to learn

Lesson 1

Keep to your schedule, and if you cannot do it, let those waiting for you know that you are delayed. The higher an executive rises, the more demanding the schedule. They cannot be expected to be on time for every meeting, but they can make an effort to notify those attending the next meeting that they are running late. Or better yet, have their admin do the notification.

Being on time is a sign of respect for the time of others. Chronic lateness lets people know they are less critical. But when you advise that you will be late, you demonstrate that others matter.

Lesson 2

Stand up for yourself and your work. Bosses ask their employees to do their best, but when they pay the work little heed, it communicates a lack of empathy. It says that what the employee does really does not matter. At the same time, telling the boss all the good things you have done may seem defensive. 

Here’s a better way: Schedule time with the boss. Prepare in advance by reviewing your own work. Briefly review your accomplishments. Make it known you welcome new challenges. In short, affirm your value and your future. 

One method many organizations adopt is requiring employees to contribute to their performance reviews. Itemizing your accomplishments for the year provides your perspective on what you have done. 

What happens next

When you stand up for yourself, something unexpected may occur. As the poet Maya Angelou wrote, “I not only have the right to stand up for myself, but I have the responsibility. I can’t ask somebody else to stand up for me if I won’t stand up for myself. And once you stand up for yourself, you’d be surprised that people say, ‘Can I be of help?'”

These lessons are affirmations of respect: respect for others and respect for self. Both are essential to getting along and doing well in the workplace. 

Note: For more on Groucho, watch the PBS documentary “Cavett and Groucho.” It is part of the American Masters series.


John Baldoni is a member of 100 coaches and a leadership keynote presenter. He has been recognized as a top 20 leadership expert by Global Gurus, a list he has been on since 2007. He is also ranked as a Global 100 Leader and Top 50 Leadership Expert by John is the author of 15 books. His leadership resource website is 

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email newsletter on leadership. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.