Which Movies Have Leadership Lessons?

Movies can be such compelling leadership stories in action. I find that movies and fiction can help me develop empathy with and deeper understanding of others. They allow me to enter deeply into awareness of another.

Some of my favorite movies have lessons for leaders. Some of the lessons are best practices. Some are cautionary tales about what not to do and what doesn’t work. Here are some of my favorites:

Apollo 13—(1995, director: Ron Howard). In 1970 NASA Mission Control works feverishly to bring three astronauts back to Earth alive after there is an explosion aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft on its journey to the moon. A true story about the resourcefulness and creativity of a team under pressure. Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) leads the team of astronauts through the crisis. The crucial line: When someone in ground control says, “This could be our greatest failure”, the head of ground control (Ed Harris) corrects him and says, “I beg to differ. This could be our greatest triumph.” A gripping re-creation of a tragedy averted.

Big—(1988, director: Penny Marshall). A 13-year old boy gets his wish to grow “big” and is magically transformed into a 30-year-old (Tom Hanks), but inside he’s still a teenager. Now working in a toy company, he attends a meeting where managers make uninspiring presentations about a new product. As the group is about to approve it, Hanks asks: “What’s fun about that?” The lesson for business: Enable people to be authentic and run meetings which are not full of groupthink. (Groupthink is a concept identified by Irving Janus, where groups tend to focus on harmony in a decision-making group, minimizing conflict and reaching a consensus decision that is unrealistic because they haven’t made a critical evaluation of different ideas or views.)

The Candidate — (1972, director: Michael Ritchie). A young California lawyer (Robert Redford) is persuaded to run for senator. He struggles with whether it is more important to hold to principles (but lose battles) or to influence and persuade others (but be seen by some as “selling out.”) In succeeding, he alienates supporters and is vague about his real opinions.

The Godfather — (1972; Part II 1974; Part III 1990; director: Francis Ford Coppola). The immorality of this trilogy lies in the depiction of mobsters as family men. Vito Corleone practices a management approach of command and control. He builds paternal relationships. Sonny Corleone persistently employs a win-lose war of total destruction in which brute force is on his side. He builds relationships based on raw power and control. Michael Corleone attempts to become a legitimate businessman. He creates new market structures, going global and acting like a multi-national corporation, transforming the way business is done. He builds partnerships across diverse lines. In focusing on tasks he loses important relationships. Sonny and Michael pay an awful price for power.

Ikiru—(1952, director: Akira Kurosawa; in Japanese). Ikiru means “to live.” A low-level bureaucrat discovers he is dying of cancer. He searches for relationships and meaning. This is solemn, plain and everyday, but the realism is acutely conveyed by the performance of Takashi Shimura and the empathy of director Kurosawa. Absolutely authentic.

Invictus—(2009, director: Clint Eastwood). Nelson Mandela, newly elected as South Africa’s president, uses subtle and intricate leadership to bring about racial reconciliation between blacks and whites. François Pienaar, white captain of South Africa’s Springboks rugby team (at the outset a symbol of apartheid), is persuaded by Mandela to lead his initially unwilling teammates through a transformation to become leaders in racial understanding—and on to athletic triumph in the World Cup. Moving.

Jerry Maguire—(1996, director: Cameron Crowe). A successful sports agent loses his job in an idealistic moment. He becomes more ‘human’ through learning to care for others. Worker-as-shark versus worker-as-good-guy.

Shackleton—(2002, director: Charles Sturridge). Kenneth Branagh stars as the explorer during the 1914 journey in the Endurance to the South Pole. After their ship is destroyed in the pack ice, Shackleton heroically leads his 28-man team to safety, keeping them motivated and hopeful during their long struggle.

True Blue— (1996, director: Ferdinand Fairfax), retitled Miracle at Oxford for the US DVD. It follows the 1987 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. Will the boat race change from being a gentleman’s contest to one where winning is everything? Coaches and rowers struggle for influence in the months prior to the race. Will the team be able to work together or will prima donnas break it up?

Twelve Angry Men—(1957, director: Sidney Lumet). And the Russian version, 12—(2007, director: Nikita Mikhalkov, in Russian). These films are intense dramas which demonstrate the dangers of groupthink. A murder case jury is about to vote the defendant guilty. One doubting juror takes a brave position against the majority in search of truth and justice. A classic.

The Wages of Fear—(1953, director: Henri-Georges Clouzot). Drivers are offered big money to take nitro-glycerin into the jungles of Central America to put out an oil well fire. How far will they go for money? Greatly suspenseful, a classic.

Do you have favorites you would like to share? Particularly movies that are not in English. Please let me know and I’ll share the best in another blog.

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