Lights! Camera! Leadership?

by  Jennifer V. Miller  |  Meet Lead Change

Think about the last time you watched a movie. What was your reason for doing so?

Were you hoping to:

  • Laugh?
  • Get scared?
  • Escape?
  • Be thrilled?
  • Imagine possibilities?

Perhaps it was a mixture of these reactions you sought. In any case, you may not have been looking for lessons in leadership. At least, for me, the movies aren’t my go-to source for leadership wisdom. After dialing in to the October 7th, 2010 Meet Lead Change Radio Show broadcast perhaps I should reconsider. Show host Mike Henry posed the following question:

“Think for a moment about all of your favorite movies. Which of your favorite movies has a leadership message to it?”

Well, when you put it that way, hmm, let’s see. . .

Because many of my Lead Change associates are in the business world, my initial thoughts focused on movies that feature a work setting: the cult classic Office Space or In Good Company in which Topher Grace is the much-younger boss Carter Duryea to Dennis Quaid’s recently demoted Dane Foreman. Or, going way back, how about Dabney Coleman’s bullying, chauvinistic boss in Nine To Five or Holly Hunter’s driven reporter Jane Craig in the news room dramatic comedy of Broadcast News?

Eventually I settled on Dead Poet’s Society, which is centered in an all-boys school, not an office. As you’ll see below, every movie suggested by the listeners took place outside of an office setting. This is telling. While there are certainly some illuminating movies about “work”, the workplace tends to be the backdrop, not the focus, of movies. Typically, cinematic storytelling casts a much wider net, taking us to places and immersing us in situations that stretch our imagination.  And it’s in these places that we can really see leadership in a whole new light, apart from what we might typically define as “leadership” in our daily lives. Mike’s question tapped into this larger landscape and it garnered some fantastic responses from the listeners.

Here’s a round up of the movies mentioned. . .

From the Blog Talk Radio chat window, Dale Lawrence offered: What Dreams May Come—which involved learning from a mentor, having to lead ones’ self during extreme adversity, and refusing to give up.

Erin Schreyer called in to say Braveheart. She loved how passionate the lead character William Wallace was and felt that it’s this passion that a leader must show to engage others.

Russ Thoman was also on the call and said that the movie Gandhi offers an excellent study in how someone can affect huge change without positional authority.

The Twitter world chimed too. Tristan Bishop said Woody in Toy Story 3 is an authentic, servant leader.  He even wrote a blog post about it on the Lead Change’s blog.  Rusti-Ann Blanke suggested Frodo in Lord of the Rings—“ordinary, but ultimately capable of taking on a daunting challenge if only we step up.”

Susan Mazza arrived later in the call to suggest Patch Adams in which Robin Williams plays an empathetic “doctor” who’s passionate about healing his patients’ emotional wounds.

Peter Mello suggested Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Henry V.

And our wise Lead Change founder Mike— what did he offer? He suggested The Last Castle, starring Robert Redford. The movie takes place in a prison in which Redford’s character Lt. General Eugene Irwin is incarcerated. Mike observed how Irwin was able to restore the dignity of the inmates by expecting better of them. “The power of expectations are a great thing in leadership”, reflected Mike.

What’s your favorite movie with a leadership theme? If I missed your contribution from the Lead Change call, please offer it here.  We’ve got a great list started. . . .

photo credit: istockphoto.com © Tatiana Popova

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About The Author

Articles By jennifer-miller
Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others towards greater career success.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

William Powell  |  12 Oct 2010  |  Reply

Love the topic Jennifer!

There are some great classics listed in the post, but I’m going to drift a touch left of center and mention the most recent movie that exhibited a number of great leadership qualities…Despicable Me. Yes, the animated movie. I actually wrote a blog post detailing 5 leadership lessons from the movie.

1. Nothing of any magnitude or of any great significance can be accomplished alone.
2. You will always have someone who is trying to do something similar; leverage that.
3. At some point in your leadership you will be forced to make a decision between what is right and what is a “part of your plan”.
4. When you stop using people as a tool to complete a task and begin to appreciate them for who they are, amazing things happen.
5. When you give to others, what you receive in return is absolutely incredible.

Jennifer V. Miller  |  12 Oct 2010  |  Reply


Thanks for that great suggestion. I’m thinking I need to review my animated features as well because these days, with two young kids, that’s the only sort of cinema that I see :-)

HR Minion  |  12 Oct 2010  |  Reply

I vote for 12 Angry Men. Classic.

Jennifer V. Miller  |  12 Oct 2010  |  Reply

Via Twitter Bret Simmons (@drbret) said, “The Endurance. Amazing story of leadership. We Were Soldiers has a few classics scenes that depict the core of leadership.”

Jennifer V. Miller  |  13 Oct 2010  |  Reply

Two more contributions via Twitter:

Eleanor Biddulph (@elbiddulph) To Kill A Mockingbird! Atticus = integrity, character, calm under pressure, enrolls others, chooses right over easy.

Sean Irwin (@SErwin): Rudy. Overcoming obstacles and handling adversity

Mary Jo Asmus  |  13 Oct 2010  |  Reply

How about one with a woman as a leader? Elizabeth: The Golden Age (w. Cate Blanchett).

William Powell  |  15 Oct 2010  |  Reply

Great choice Mary Jo. Love that movie!

angela bisignano  |  13 Oct 2010  |  Reply

Wonderful question Jennifer.
I recently say the “Book of Eli”.
A great leader knows his calling / mission and stays the course, until the mission is accomplished.

Mike Myatt  |  15 Oct 2010  |  Reply

I’m a big movie fan and really enjoyed this post, as well as the comments that followed. I put this list together a while back, and while it probably needs updating, it does contain a number of my favorite leadership movies: http://www.n2growth.com/blog/top-leadership-movies

Jennifer V. Miller  |  27 Oct 2010  |  Reply


Your comment slipped past me….I just checked out your list. It’s extensive and provides great food for thought. Thanks!

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