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Everything I Know about Leadership, I Learned From the Movies

A look at 10 films that can help teach you how to inspire your organization, earn loyalty and respect from employees, turn crises into triumph, and become a successful member of a community.
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Want to inspire your organization? Earn the undying loyalty of employees? Turn crises into triumphs? Start by renting these 10 videos.

Every year around Christmas, Susan Schreter takes a refresher course in leadership. Her teacher is always the same: George Bailey, the sweetly earnest hero of It's a Wonderful Life, who risks his livelihood to prove that compassionate banking need not be an oxymoron. "Every time I see that movie, I want to be more like George," says Schreter, CEO of Coupons4Everything.com, a Seattle-based start-up that offers coupons and rebates for consumer goods over the Web. "He reminds me that the important thing is to be respected, not as a rich entrepreneur but as a socially minded, successful member of a community."

Schreter's paean to the saint of Bedford Falls came in response to a recent Inc. survey that asked small-company CEOs and senior executives to name the movies that inspired business leaders best. The question isn't a frivolous one: movies -- like Shakespeare -- are becoming a staple of business school curricula, as professors screen Wall Street to teach ethics and leaven Tom Peters with Tom (Jerry Maguire) Cruise. "Films are a catalyst. They present dramatic problems, crises, and turnarounds," explains John K. Clemens, who incorporates works like Hoosiers and Citizen Kane into his graduate management and executive education courses at Hartwick College, in Oneonta, N.Y., and is the coauthor of Movies to Manage By: Lessons in Leadership from Great Films (NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, 1999). "Films beg to be interpreted and discussed, and from those discussions businesspeople come up with principles for their own jobs."


Academic validation notwithstanding, we expected the cold shoulder when we recently asked approximately 100 readers to don Roger Ebert hats. Company builders, after all, are generally too busy to haunt the local cineplex, let alone mull the business implications of what they might see there. Or so we thought. To our surprise, almost two-thirds of those surveyed responded, many almost immediately. Some wrote or called several times to tweak their lists, while others left impassioned voice mail messages extolling their favorites. "If you haven't seen it, rent it today," these messages almost invariably concluded.

A few respondents described movies that had influenced their professional lives. One CEO said that Baby Boom, in which Diane Keaton trades the corporate piranha pool for motherhood and a gourmet baby food start-up, inspired her to go into business for herself. Another used insights gleaned from the Bill Murray comedy What About Bob? -- about a psychiatric patient tormenting his shrink -- to help him cope with a problem employee.

More often, however, readers praised films that grapple with ethical and personal quandaries played out by realistically nuanced characters. "The best leadership films deal with the fundamentals, such as the presence or absence of integrity and trust," says Clemens. "In Citizen Kane, for example, you see the classic trajectory of early integrity followed by its loss as the character climbs the power grid. In Dead Poets Society, Keating, an English teacher at a prep school, is fired, and there's a suicide. But he has enormous integrity. And at the end you have to ask yourself, 'Did he succeed or fail?' -- which is a wonderful question for anyone interested in leadership."

Readers, no doubt, will disagree with the inclusion of some of the films listed here and become apoplectic over the exclusion of others. But that's to be expected. As the Academy Awards remind us each year: Filmmaking is both an art and a science. Film ranking is neither.

Apollo 13 (1995)
From our readers' enthusiastic responses, we have to conclude that Apollo 13 's signature line, "Failure is not an option," has worked its way into at least half the mission statements in corporate America. And why not? The astronauts and ground personnel in Ron Howard's space opera provide levelheaded, creative leadership during a harrowing crisis. And if there's a better example out there of managing a far-flung organization (Texas, Florida, outer space), we haven't found it.

Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), in charge of flight operations in Houston, and Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), commander of the 1970 Apollo lunar mission, share leadership duties when there's an explosion on Lovell's craft. These aren't guys with big dreams and inspirational personalities; they're guys with an urgent problem that can be solved only through teamwork, ingenuity, and clearheaded direction. And they supply those attributes in spades. Kranz drives his team of wired, bleary-eyed technicians to ever greater lengths of inventiveness ("I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole, rapidly"), and Lovell oversees the implementation of the ground crew's ideas by men under the most horrific stress imaginable.


Think creatively. Keep your head. Manage communication. And as for failure, well, that's just not an option.


But the film is also about the role communication plays in leadership, a subject both Kranz and Lovell appear to have thought through carefully. By squelching intraoffice and intracapsule arguments, never sharing incomplete or alarmist data, and maintaining a constant verbal -- and emotional -- lifeline between those on the ground and those off it, they maintain maximum control in a chaotic situation. That, in turn, inspires confidence among both crews. It's a crucial point: leaders certainly desire loyalty and passion, but if they fail to win their followers' confidence first, well, failure is not an option.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
No study of leadership is complete without a lesson in hubris, and no one did hubris quite like the British Empire, particularly in its declining years. The sad consequences of that overweening confidence are chronicled brilliantly by David Lean in films ranging from A Passage to India to The Bridge on the River Kwai. The latter is the story of a British regiment building a strategic railroad bridge for its Japanese captors during World War II.


When execution takes priority over strategy, the results can't help being catastrophic.


Hubris, in Kwai, is personified by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), the proud but rigid British officer who directs the construction project. Like many great managers, Nicholson exhibits formidable skills of organization and implementation. But like many flawed leaders, he never ponders the ends toward which those skills are applied. Nicholson dives into the project with gusto, marshaling the administrative savoir faire that he and his men have amassed through years of maintaining the British Empire. His whip-cracking management style results in a 30% productivity increase, and the bridge is completed capably and with dispatch. To Nicholson's satisfaction, his men see the humiliation of captivity mitigated by the pride of achievement.

Which is all well and good, but of course the best interests of the British army are not served by helping the enemy improve its supply chain. Obsessed with honor and with the vision of his own legacy, Nicholson never asks the most important question: Am I doing this for myself or for the organization? Execution takes priority over strategy. And when that happens, in business as in war, the results can't help being catastrophic.

Dead Poets Society (1989)
In a dazzling display of verbal midwifery, English professor John Keating extracts a poem of raw power from a student who moments before had professed himself incapable of composing even the most pedestrian verse. The student stands before his applauding classmates, emotionally drained and awestruck at his own achievement, while Keating gazes at him with a look that approaches rapture.

This is the finest moment of Dead Poets Society, the story of a thoroughly unorthodox teacher at a thoroughly orthodox boys' prep school. Keating (Robin Williams at his most Robin Williams-ish) is a larger-than-life motivator who encourages his callow charges to seize the day, question authority, and commit other acts that today seem bumper sticker trite but in this 11-year-old film appear madly risky and fiercely innovative. In this teacher's philosophy, no rule is so entrenched it can't be broken, no box so big it can't be thought out of. With his courageous ideas and manic charisma, Keating inspires extraordinary -- almost cultish -- devotion among his followers. He is the kind of leader who changes young lives.

That said, unequivocably recommending Keating as a role model for executives would be the film critic's version of malpractice. He is clumsy in adult relationships, has no patience with institutional politics, and does nothing to promote loyalty to the organization. Yes, one can easily picture Williams's character leading the charge at a dot-com start-up. But before you could say carpe diem, investors would be demanding a real CEO.

Elizabeth (1998)
Newly minted CEOs who worry that leaders are born, not made, should find the 1998 movie Elizabeth reassuring. The woman responsible for England's golden age starts off with the fierce independence of any company founder, refusing her dying half-sister's demand that she uphold the Catholic faith and declaring that "when I am queen, I promise to act as my conscience dictates." But thrust into a maelstrom of politics and religion, when Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) does take the throne, she frets, hesitates, and falls back upon the wrongheaded counsel of others.

Defeated in battle and with England's powerful bishops aligned against her, Elizabeth laments that she will never equal her father, Henry VIII, at running the family business. But slowly she grows comfortable in the ruler's skin, learning to win by using the force of her personality rather than the power of her position. (The scene in which the new queen sways a hostile Parliament by combining calls to conscience with sly, self-deprecating humor is a masterpiece of meeting management.) As betrayal is heaped upon betrayal, she becomes a shrewd judge of people, learning to trust only herself and the sole nobleman loyal enough to kill for her.

Elizabeth's decision to renounce romantic love in favor of total devotion to her subjects could resonate with anyone trying to satisfy the demands of a family and a business. Yes, her sacrifice appears extreme. But it's hard to argue with success: Elizabeth ruled for more than 40 years, and at her death England was the most powerful and prosperous country in Europe.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Business leaders wishing to nurture happy, motivated, successful employees need look no further than the film version of David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross. The trick is to carefully study the words and actions of the managers portrayed here and then do the exact opposite.

A bitter, cynical, and ultimately tragic take on American business, this is the story of a handful of real estate salesmen struggling to salvage their jobs and some shreds of dignity in an organization bent on their humiliation. The company's owners -- the universally loathed Mitch and Murray -- callously set these men up to fail by hoarding choice new prospects until the "losers" who work for them prove their mettle by closing leads already proven worthless.

Significantly, Mitch and Murray never show their faces in the dreary office where most of the action takes place. Instead they send a well-coiffed barracuda (Alec Baldwin), who berates the already demoralized employees in a speech of extraordinary viciousness. "You see this watch?" he asks one salesman. "That watch costs more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. That's who I am. And you're nothing."


Listen to these managers' words. Carefully observe their actions. Then say and do exactly the opposite.


Not content to demolish morale and organizational loyalty, the owners' mouthpiece then lays waste to teamwork and collegiality by announcing a sales contest. First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. "Third prize is you're fired." That announcement sends the salesmen into a spiral of despair, deception, and crime. By movie's end Mitch and Murray have been robbed and the new leads sold to a competitor. They're getting off light.

Glengarry Glen Ross is a warning for company owners who treat sales staff like a different species, deserving of extra strokes when they produce and extra kicks when they don't. Sometimes your best people are the most fragile when times get rough. If you can't manage to challenge without threatening and motivate without intimidating, you'll lose 'em all.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Beneath all its Currier & Ives iconography -- the Christmas tree, the skating pond, the dance in the high school gym -- the Yuletide perennial It's a Wonderful Life is a tribute to principles-based management. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart at his good-man-with-dark-underbelly best) epitomizes the socially conscious entrepreneur. He keeps his savings and loan company alive during the depression by reaching out to the tired, poor, and huddled masses spurned by his fat-cat competitor. No matter how big the business gets -- and it never gets very big -- you sense that he'll always treat employees with consideration and respect and always address every customer by name. So humble is this company owner that he rolls up his own sleeves when it's time to help those customers move into their new homes.


Treat your customers and employees with generosity and consideration. It will always come back to you.


George's it's-all-about-the-people philosophy is the diametric opposite of the it's-all-about-the-job approach (see Twelve O'Clock High, below), and real business owners might debate which is worse -- being fiscally irresponsible or being ungenerous. But in director Frank Capra's reap-what-you-sow universe, George's community outreach is amply rewarded when the community reaches back to rescue his imperiled business. It's the ultimate gesture of customer loyalty, accepted without embarrassment because it is so well deserved.

Norma Rae (1979)
Sally Field will be remembered for two moments: her speech ("You like me!") in front of millions of television viewers during the 1980 Academy Awards ceremony, and her silence in front of several hundred textile workers in Norma Rae. The latter performance is the worthier legacy.

Resisting expulsion from the mill where she and her family have worked all their lives, Field's character scrawls the word union on a board and scrambles onto a table. For almost three minutes she stands there -- scared but resolute, holding her declaration aloft -- while one by one the workers switch off their machines, reducing the factory floor to silence. It may be the most powerful act of wordless suasion in film: testimony to the fact that in leadership, oratory isn't everything.

The mill workers don't respond to Norma Rae because she, personally, inspires them. They know her and her flaws -- a quick temper, a dicey sexual past -- too well for that. But as Norma gains the courage of conviction, she comes to embody her cause. Her transformation from passive follower to rebel-within-bounds to go-for-broke torchbearer is catalyzed by Reuben Warshofsky, a New York City labor organizer who recognizes Norma's latent abilities. An effective leader in his own right, Reuben has a playful, hectoring, and intellectually engaging relationship with Norma that is mentoring at its best.

Norma Rae never denies who she is. But she won't let it matter. Thus she commands the allegiance of the downtrodden workers while always remaining one of them. Norma Rae demonstrates that you don't have to be better than the people that you lead. You don't even have to believe in yourself. As long as you believe passionately in what you are doing, others will follow.

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
If a visionary leader is someone who sees what isn't there and makes others see it too, then Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a visionary leader. Forbidden to watch the World Series by Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), the emotionally corseted ruler of this film's psychiatric-ward setting, he maniacally announces imaginary plays as he stares at a blank TV screen. Within moments the other patients gather round him, shouting and cheering on the invisible players. Akio Morita, formerly the chairman of Sony, probably felt the same thrill as he described for his employees how millions of people would someday walk the streets listening to music through tiny headphones.


Even the most inspired visionary can't change an organization if he doesn't first understand it.


It would be simple to approach the battle between McMurphy and Ratched for the soul of the ward as a case study in divergent leadership styles, with McMurphy triumphing in spirit, if not in fact. He is reduced to a zombie by a lobotomy, but his protégé -- the Chief (Will Sampson) -- makes a run for it. Ratched is all rigidity and rules: she derives power from her ability to humiliate and cow a vulnerable constituency. McMurphy, on the other hand, reminds the lost souls of their humanity and restores their belief in the possibility of joy. Where there is life -- and McMurphy is life at its roughest, rawest, and most potent -- there is hope.

But McMurphy makes the same mistake that many new leaders in established organizations commit: he tries to enact change without understanding why things are the way they are. Upending power structures, flouting bad rules, turning on the charisma, he seems like a rebel destined to win his cause. He learns too late that the organization he hopes to turn around is deeply and complexly dysfunctional and that the powers that oppose him are firmly entrenched. Yes, the world can be changed by a single person. But not by a naï ve one.

Twelve Angry Men (1957)
It's a sweltering afternoon, and you're closeted in an airless room with 11 other people, many of whom you'd ordinarily cross the street to avoid. The group's mission is to make a decision based on seemingly clear-cut evidence. The other members vote immediately for the obvious course of action, one that, for all you know, may be correct. But you have this nagging doubt. What do you do?

If you're Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, you quietly but resolutely force the issue back on the table. The issue, in this case, is the guilt or innocence of a teenage boy accused of killing his father. The jurors represent backgrounds, personalities, and agendas calculated to clash. Alone among them, Fonda (Juror #8) understands the gravity of the matter and deplores the haste to convict. But instead of trying to seize the bridle and yank the runaway horse in the right direction, #8 relies on open-ended questioning, sophisticated reasoning, and yes, even patient listening to draw the others into his corner. Occasionally forced into impassioned confrontations, #8 rarely says anything more adamant than "I don't know. It's possible." Yet by the film's end he has transformed a lackluster, rubber-stamp meeting into an encounter bristling with energy and passion, during which each juror has publicly confronted his own demons.

Juror #8's performance is a model for corporate leaders trying to win over diverse, hostile constituencies without resorting to bullying or edict. After watching Twelve Angry Men, executives may forgo that M.B.A. and pursue a psychology degree instead.

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
Our readers can't get enough of Twelve O'Clock High (it turned up on more than two dozen lists), and not just because Gregory Peck looks swell in a leather bomber jacket. Many testify to repeated viewings of this World War II yarn in which General Frank Savage (Peck) takes over a bombing unit that has been reduced to chaos by a beloved commanding officer whose empathy has seriously compromised his ability to lead.


New leaders must first earn employees' respect, even if that means being unpopular. If they do it right, love will follow.


Savage realizes that in order to build up his men, he must first break down their defiant, defeatist attitudes. He accomplishes that with a series of summary commands such as demoting an enlisted man for being out of uniform and reshuffling roommate assignments to prevent personal relationships from subverting smart combat decisions. The troops rebel, but Savage doesn't ease up. And slowly, as the ragtag 918th Bomber Group sees itself metamorphose into a crack squad of precision bombers, its members come to appreciate the new CO's tactics and to love and respect the man himself.

Twelve O'Clock High will not appeal to hierarchy flatteners and empowerment enthusiasts trying to build cultures as warm and welcoming as the family den. Savage succeeds because he doesn't give a damn about his own popularity -- only about the effectiveness of the squadron. And no, good leaders don't always have to be sons of bitches. But Savage would argue that when the straits are dire and the stakes enormous, it's the only way.

Leigh Buchanan is a senior editor at Inc. Mike Hofman is a staff writer at Inc.

Last updated: Mar 1, 2000




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