Learning Leadership: 10 Classic Movies About Leaders and Leadership

“Emerging leaders must exit the managerial cocoon—a butterfly cannot stay in its shell.” — M. Johannsen

Many times we talk about learning about charismatic leadership through books, but there is another way; watching good television shows and movies.

Traditionally, people are passive consumers of information — shutting off their minds while watching the screen. However, observing transformational leadership in action can increase one’s understanding of the phenomena.

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Learn While Watching A Movie

Many people who learn leadership feel that one must read books and take outside classes. These work, but there is another way–to observe, study and act.

Few of us are theory wonks, most of us learn by observation. Modeling, when done properly, is one of the top three behavioral methods useful in learning new skills since participants can actually see and hear individuals acting like leaders.

Movies on Emergent Leadership

Twelve O’Clock High

The story is set during World Word II. General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over a bombing squadron whose efficiency was compromised in which the previous leader suffering from combat fatigue and the reality of seeing friends and comrades suffering from wounds, many dead, some dying, or others getting shot down.

Emerging leader Savage uses heavy-handed tactics to establish his authority, like many managers in departments or organizations facing turnaround situations, Consequently, the movie shows morale deteriorating and by the numbers performance plummeting.

The movie vividly illustrates the limits of authority and what happens when one overuses punishment, fear, and intimidation. Savage succeeds in turning around the unit but pays a tremendous price.

One learns from this movie a series of lessons on tactics emerging leaders should and should not use for turnaround and crises.

Twelve Angry Men

You are stuck with twelve strangers you would rather not be with. It’s very hot in the room and a decision has to be made whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. Almost everyone present wants to leave. The first vote is taken and it’s eleven to one—you being the only one to vote innocent. What to do?

A jury has a foreman, but that person may or may not be the real leader of the group. In this movie, emerging leader Juror 8 (played by Henry Fonda) rather than caving to peer pressure, uses many different techniques to get the others in the room to reconsider their positions.

Through the clever use of subtle patterns of persuasion and questions, Fonda emerges as the de facto leader of the group. After watching this leadership movie, you may want to forget about the MBA and get a degree in psychology instead.

The Return Of The King

The third of Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on J.RR Tolkein’s books, the leadership movie won eleven Oscars including best picture and best director in 2004. Along with stunning special effects, the movie documents the struggle of a group of friends on a great Quest.

One of the two major themes in The Return of The King is a study of what emerging leaders must do. Aragorn as the emerging leader and heir to the throne faces the challenge of legitimacy. How to get others to accept his right to rule?

This leadership movie has parallels in a family business. How is the son or daughter going to establish the legitimate right to run the “kingdom?” It is also a critical issue for anyone assuming a position of responsibility with a new group since emerging leaders cannot rely only on authority.

The Thing

Considered one of the best science fiction movies of the 50s, this suspense-packed movie is a tale of a polar expedition terrorized by the alien from a crashed flying saucer.

Initially, the suspense was generated from the fact that the two groups at the arctic research station (the military and the scientists) have radically different views of what to do with the visitor. Is this Thing dangerous or not? Can it be carrying microbes dangerous to all life on earth?

A classic study of value to emerging leaders, it pits two groups against each other as they strive to figure out what to do next. As in many crises, there is fear of the unknown and immense uncertainty in terms of the correct course of action.

In an environment of crisis, several emerging leaders may try to establish legitimacy. Some succeed, others are ignored, and established leaders can gain or lose influence.

This leadership movie has little blood, guts, and gore, but it is a great study of what emerging leaders must do to prevail in a crisis.

Transformational Leadership Movies

My Fair Lady

How positive expectations can bring about change in others (along with a bit of coaching). Watch the My Fair Lady Trailer.

The King’s Speech

Along with My Fair Lady, this is a movie that documents the power of leadership expectations.

Business Leadership Movies

Barbarians At The Gate

This made-for-television movie is an interesting study in business leadership based on KKR’s acquisition in 1985 of RJR Nabisco for 25 billion, still one of the largest leveraged buy-outs in corporate history. The story is an interesting contrast between the leadership styles of the two principles involved in this deal. One is F. Ross Johnson, who is CEO of RJR and the other is Henry Kravis, who heads up the private equity firm of KKR. Ross is a classic marketing and sales personality while Kravis is the financial and accounting genius who looks at deals in terms of numbers.

Wall Street

What great wealth and the pursuit of greed does to people has been long a classic theme of Hollywood movies from It’s a Wonderful Live on. In this story, a greedy, ambitious young broker is seduced by the power, the wealth, the status, and yes, the personality and persuasive skills of Wall Street financier Gordon Gecko. Part of the drama takes place as Gecko pursues his “take no prisoners” and “greed is good” philosophy to acquire companies and strip them of their assets.

 Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

It has long been an article of faith that the purpose of a public corporation is to maximize profits. However, many practical and ethical considerations prevent most boards and CEOs from actually doing so. One notable exception was Enron. In the documentary, one gets to sees how both culture and leadership philosophy of Kenneth Ley and Jeff Skilling interact to influence business practices.

Leadership in Military Contexts

Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World

How one can prevail against a superior adversary and keep up morale in the face of bad odds.

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