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10 leadership lessons from the movies

By Cranfield School of Management


We always say you should never stop learning. That includes during your leisure time by the way, as sometimes it is when you’re at your most relaxed that you’re most open to learning valuable lessons that can help you in your day-to-day work.

As we publish this on Star Wars Day (May the fourth be with you!), we take a light-hearted look at what the movies can teach us about leadership. 

Lead by example

“Attitude reflects leadership, Captain”

 – Julius Campbell

The inspirational true story of a newly-appointed African-American football coach and his high school team during their first season as a racially-integrated unit, Remember The Titans (2000) teaches us our first lesson about leadership – the importance of leading by example. In one particularly emotionally-charged scene Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) and Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) confront one another after weeks of tension on and off the field. When Gerry points out that Julius has a poor attitude, Julius responds with: “Attitude reflects leadership, Captain.” It can be hard when you’re working hard and leading from the front not to get frustrated sometimes, but it’s important not to take that frustration out on your team. As their leader, your attitude will be contagious. Be positive, be inspirational and be transparent.

Remember the journey

“You got a dream… you gotta protect it. People can’t do somethin’ themselves, they wanna tell you you can’t do it. If you want somethin’, go get it. Period.”

– Chris Gardner

Another inspirational true story, The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) sees entrepreneur Chris Gardner (Will Smith) struggle with homelessness after landing a job as a stock broker. The film is all about persistence, perseverance and dedication to pursuing a dream, or a desire for something better in life. Successful leaders often start out with a dream, and a plan. They work hard and finally get to where they want to be, but all-to-often forget where they came from. Think about the struggles you went through to get to where you are today. Remember all the challenges you faced, but the successes too, and use all of that to remind you of why you do what you do, and to inspire you to keep going no matter what may come your way.

Choices are key

“…my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room…are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.”

Mark Zuckerberg

Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010) shows that success is about more than just having a great idea. Identifying a need for a product or service creates an opportunity – but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The choices you then make in how you grow that idea will determine whether your journey will ultimately lead to success or failure. In Zuckerberg’s case, self-belief and determination helped him ultimately defeat anyone else who would have taken his crown.

Recruit a good team

“I know you know a lot of super people so… thinks for thanking of me.”

– Scott Lang (Ant Man)

In Captain America: Civil War (2016) we see the Avengers team of super-heroes split, forming two opposing sides. Each side has to regroup, and bring in new recruits to shore up their strength. You can be the greatest leader in the world, but without good people around you, you won’t get very far in business. Recruiting the right people is key. A good leader sees past the person with the best degree or most experience, spotting potential that others may not and identifying strengths and characteristics that will complement those in an existing team and enable it to perform at its very best.

Empower your employees

“I can’t make you do it. You gotta look at the guy next to you and see a guy who will go that inch with you”

– Tony D’Amato

Towards the end of the 1999 film Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino’s character, fictional NFL team coach Tony D’Amato, tells his players that all he can do is teach them tactics and try to organise them on the field, but that it is up to them to win the game. By empowering his team with the responsibility for finding their own way to win, D’Amato shows that he trusts his players and believes in their ability to demonstrate what they have learned to the best of their abilities. The best leaders give their employees the tools to succeed and encourage them, through support and feedback, to find their own solution for delivery on their targets. In this way, employees can learn, grow and develop as professionals, building a stronger workforce for the organisation in the long term.

Learn from others

“You’re interns?!... You’re so old though.”

– intern

Telling the story of two salespeople who start working at Google, where they must compete with young, tech-savvy geniuses for a shot at employment, The Internship (2013) teaches us the importance of listening to the people around you. At first, Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) are dismissed as too old and behind the times to know what they’re talking about. However, by the end of the film, it’s clear that, while they have learned from the younger competitors around them, those younger competitors have also learned from them. Good leaders take into account that everyone has something to offer. They know they don’t know it all, and seek to draw on the knowledge and expertise of their team.

Reward success

“My warriors, who won’t take ‘No’ for an answer. Who won’t hang up the phone till their client either buys. Or… dies!”

– Jordan Belfont

Inspiring, charismatic leaders who can motivate their teams, lead through challenges and reward high-performance appropriately are rewarded with extremely loyal workforces of highly-skilled workers who will do anything and everything they can to ensure their company’s success. While we’re not suggesting you organise lavish drug-fuelled parties every time you hit your monthly targets like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jordan Belfont in the real-life story The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), you can’t dispute the fact that he rewarded his employees well for their hard work. Just be sure to keep those rewards fair and ethical!

Communicate effectively

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius… and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

– Maximus Decimus Meridius

The opening minutes of Gladiator (2000) see Russell Crowe’s character, respected general Maximus Decimus Meridius, deliver a masterclass in leadership through effective communication. Meridius conveys complex battle instructions to his officers in a clear and concise way, before motivating them with a rousing speech. Later, during the heat of battle, he succeeds in beckoning his cavalry to enter the fray using a pre-arranged signal. Whether you need to communicate instructions to your team or have make-or-break conversations with a difficult client, strong communication is one of the most crucial attributes of being a good leader.

Deal with adversity as well as triumph

“It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”

– Rocky Balboa

Advising his son to not give up in the face of adversity, Sylvester Stallone’s character in Rocky Balboa (2006) reminds us that we should always keep moving forward, no matter what. Inspirational leaders take the good with the bad and keep going. Showing your team that you can take the hits, get up and try again will inspire them to do the same on your behalf and inspire a culture of positivity within your organisation.

And finally…

Know how NOT to lead

“By all means, move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me”

Miranda Priestley

Miranda Priestley, director of fictional fashion magazine Runway in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), is a case study in how not to act as a boss. Frequently demanding the impossible and expecting her assistants to be mind-readers on a regular basis, Miranda (Meryl Streep) hires and fires at will, making the “job a million girls would kill for” one that is tough, if not impossible to survive. We get it – you have to be uncompromising to survive in the cut-throat fashion industry – but couldn’t she have offered a tiny bit more information to help guide her employees, or slowed down a bit when listing demands? Good leaders equip their team with the knowledge they need to carry out their duties, and rule with less of an iron fist.

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