5 Classic Movies, 5 Leadership Lessons
Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Make them believe in the win-win
The film opens with T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) in a basement drawing maps for the British Army. It’s not a glamorous position, but Lawrence manages to show his superior officers he has a keen understanding of the Middle East. Reluctantly, they send him into the desert to conduct intelligence work, and he eventually camps with a Bedouin tribe that is desperate to protect its land from the Turks.
Lawrence begins as the ultimate outsider, but in a short period of time he becomes a primary leader. How did he do this?
He understands the needs and nuances of the Bedouin and politically engages their leader, Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness). More important, he understands that to be trusted he has to present himself not as an internal expert, but as servant-leader acting on the Arabs’ behalf. Lawrence’s success is grounded in his ability to persuade the Bedouin that siding with the British is a win for both parties.
There is a footnote here in that in the short-term, Lawrence is able to accomplish his goals. Those who know British history know that this was not ultimately a win-win, although Lawrence was clever enough to cast it that way. Even though he shows a servant attitude, he understands that he has to get the Bedouins on his side.
The Caine Mutiny (1954): Keep them in your corner
But when Nicholson inspects the enlisted men’s efforts at building a bridge he is horrified at their spotty work, improper organization, and bad planning. He assumes command of the project and begins to design a better bridge.
When asked why he is helping the enemy, Nicholson firmly states that he is doing nothing of the sort. He argues that he is boosting morale, disciplining the prisoners, and upholding the British Army’s reputation by doing the best job possible.
The completed bridge is eventually attacked by allied forces and strangely Nicholson fights to protect the bridge--his bridge. In the ensuing battle he finally realizes the error of his behavior and asks himself, “What have I done?” A shell blast knocks him to the ground and he slowly gets up. But the pain is too much for him. He stumbles and falls on the detonator, demolishing the bridge he worked so hard to create.
Nicholson knew how to lead a team, but he forgot the overriding, larger goal of the war. He only realized his error when it was far too late. Leadership can sometimes be an intoxicating, distracting force that blurs common sense and straight thinking. The Bridge Over the River Kwai reminds all leaders that they must never forget their bigger mission.
The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957): Don’t forget your mission
Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) is put in charge of the Caine--a run-of-the-mill U.S. naval ship. The first day on the job, Queeg makes it known that he runs a tight ship that follows all naval regulations. He doesn’t like shirttails hanging out and he doesn’t like protocol overlooked. The men on the ship are in a constant state of lamentation. Certainly, their old captain, who endeared himself to the men, wasn’t as tough and certainly not as demanding.
In a fierce storm, Queeg orders the ship to follow its intended route instead of turning around to avoid dangerous weather. The crew mutinies. When they make it to shore, the Navy investigates the mutiny and holds a trial. Queeg is found incompetent because of his neurotic attention to detail, but we have to ask--was he really? Queeg was an accomplished navy man with a stellar record. Perhaps his subordinates were just lazy and lacked the courage to follow their leader into the storm. The Caine Mutiny asks tough questions about leadership and what leaders can and cannot do. Queeg ultimately failed not because he didn’t have the necessary expertise and knowledge, but because he didn’t bother trying to win over his crew pragmatically.
The Guns of Navarone (1961): Make sure they work together
Granted, this isn’t your average leadership challenge. But to many, the group dynamics will be familiar. Each man in the team has a specific skill set that’s important to the mission, but each has a problem trusting the other.
The film examines the interactions between the men as they set out. Mallory keeps the team together, but does it without heroics or a lectern. As the mission nearly unravels, it becomes clear to each team member on how dependent they are on each other. Mallory takes a group of individual experts and methodically creates a team capable of working together.
Twelve Angry Men (1957): Give them time to work out their differences
Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda) is the only jury member who believes that a Puerto Rican teenager living in New York City may not have killed his father.
The other 11 jurors are irritated with Juror No. 8. Not only do they feel the case is cut-and-dried, but they have social plans and don’t want to deliberate late into the evening.
However, Juror No. 8 insists on reviewing the dubious facts, and argues that he can’t watch a teenager hang on such weak evidence.
Again, his fellow jurors mutter disapproval and restate their desire to go home. Juror No. 8 demands another vote--this time a secret one. The ballots are counted and to everyone’s surprise another “not guilty”’ vote crops up. Juror No. 8 sees a light at end of the tunnel.
Twelve Angry Men puts team dynamics under a microscope and examines how groupthink, personal motives, and prejudices can inhibit a team’s performance. However, Juror No. 8 exhibits how true, fact-by-fact, pragmatic discussion can convince people to think in different ways. Moreover, Juror No. 8 takes things slowly and gives times for differences to be ironed out. He doesn’t streamroll everyone with his views, but rather talks them to his side.
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side.