10 Tough Leadership Lessons from Great Movies

No matter what the dream, to make it come true takes leadership. Luckily, Hollywood can help. Here are 10 films that teach important lessons for leading in tough times.

10. How to Turn Failing into Winning

Twelve O’Clock High (1949) is set in the early days of the American daylight bombing raids over Nazi Germany. The Allied bombers are getting clobbered. Meet Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), who has just been put into command of a bomber wing that is falling apart. To make matters worse, the previous commander was well loved by all.  Savage has to earn their respect, instill the unit with vision and purpose, and turn his beleaguered bombers into a war-winning machine. Because the film is a realistic portrayal of the dynamics of turning around a failing organization, the U.S. Navy and Air Force still use it in leadership training.

9. When Under Pressure, Innovate

The Great Escape (1963) is a WW II adventure film that offers a memorable leadership lesson in innovation, organization and decentralized execution. Based on a true story, under “Big X” (Richard Attenborough), a group of Allied prisoners organizes the largest POW breakout of the war from a stalag that the German high command had declared “escape-proof.”

8. Crisis Management

Zulu (1964) is based on another true-life story of men at war. It is 1879. Rampaging Zulu warriors have already wiped out a British column at Isandlwana, and they are headed straight for the tiny outpost at Rorke’s Drift.  The two officers in charge decide to take a stand. “The army doesn’t like more than one disaster in a day,” quips Lieutenant Bromhead (Michael Caine). “Looks bad in the newspapers, and upsets civilians at their breakfast.” Together he and Lt. John Chard (Stanley Baker) organize the heroic defense of the station. Baker was so moved by Chard’s courage that he bought the lieutenant’s Victoria Cross (similar to the American Medal of Honor) and kept it as his prize possession. Undoubtedly one of the greatest war films ever made, this movie is also a case study in crisis leadership—decision-making with little time, scant knowledge, and a demand to act.

Competence, character, and candor are the requisite attributes highlighted in this remarkable film.

7. Self-Appointed Leadership

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) wraps an important leadership lesson in an improbable story. The cruise ship Poseidon is capsized by a giant wave. The passengers must escape before the ship sinks. Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) steps forward to lead a hapless band to the surface against all odds. More than “the” classic disaster film, The Poseidon Adventure reminds that the most “natural” leaders aren’t necessarily those at the top of the wiring diagram. Finding and nurturing “emergent” leaders is one of the most difficult but important jobs in successful organizations.

6. Leadership Can Be Learned

The Goonies (1985) is about more than buried treasure and budding testosterone. Insecure, daydreaming Mikey (Sean Astin) winds up leading a motley band of teenagers on a treacherous treasure hunt through tunnels laced with ancient pirate booby-traps and modern-day gangsters. In the end, he dodges death, outwits the bad guys, and gets both the gold and the girl. Mikey learns leadership on the job—and frankly, that is the most effective way to acquire the knack to lead.

5. Overcoming Adversity

We Are Marshall (2006) tells the true story of how real leaders deal with real tragedy. Most anyone can lead absent adversity. This film shows what it takes to lead when leadership is not optional. A plane crash claims the lives of most of the Marshall University’s football team. Rather than disband the program, the students and university administration elect to make a statement—to carry on. Coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) must lead the team and the university in “getting” back into the game.

4. Building Elite Teams

The Untouchables (1987) is a fictionalized version of FBI “boy scout” Eliot Ness (Kevin Kostner) and his hand-picked team of crime fighters, bent on taking on the top echelon of gangsters in Prohibition-era Chicago.  Mission, focus, and matching talents to the task help explain how this team successfully took down the mob.

3. Disaster Response

Before there was 9/11, there was Volcano (1997).  More than a Hollywood disaster movie, the film actually presents a close approximation of what an actual disaster response might look like during a full-scale catastrophe and how emergency management actually responds.  The plot engine—a volcano rising out of the La Brea Tar Pits—may be improbable, but the consequences of a city crashing and burning are all too real. Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones) is pretty much everywhere, doing everything. Still, he is doing the stuff leaders would do to save lives and safeguard property under the most dire circumstances.

2. Teamwork

The Damned United (2009) is anything but a classic sports film. But it is still a great sports movie about the challenge of building teamwork. “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the country,” declares Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), “but I’m in the top one.” During his tenure at Derby County, Clough engineered one of the most spectacular climbs to success in English soccer. But then he takes a job with his once bitter rival, Leeds United. In 44 days, the entire club falls apart. In flashbacks we learn how Clough managed to forge effective teams and why he failed so spectacularly with United.

1. Big Leadership

The Longest Day (1962) tells the sprawling story of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy. Though the bloody beaches bore witness to numberless individual acts of courage, the incredible effort behind the invasion—the organizing that brought together the massive armada of ships, planes, men, and material—was heroic as well. D-Day exemplifies leadership on an industrial scale. Don’t let anyone tell you Americans can’t do Big Leadership.

John Quincy Adams once wrote, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more—you are a leader.” Each of these films illustrates one of the many aspects involved in mastering this art of human achievement.

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