I’ve been chewing on the lengthy list of leadership movies that were recommended in the comments and responses to my last blog post. As a result, I’m pulling together a series of blog posts on top leadership movies. There’s no shortage of lists, so I’m not sure mine has much to add to the noise, but it was a fun exercise.

Here are the factors I used when I ranked the following movies that I’ve seen and recommend:

  • My standard is leadership where others could have stepped up but didn’t. That’s the main factor to bump movies to the top of my list.
  • Unexpected, non-positional leadership.
  • A complex portrayal of leadership that shows it’s not as easy as it looks.
  • Resourcefulness and perseverance in the face of difficulty.
  • Portrayal of leadership at multiple levels.
  • A well-told story. I used Rotten Tomatoes ratings as my standard.

So, here they are, the top leadership movies I’ve seen:

1. Invictus – The convergence in the leadership styles, roles and methods of two leaders. The impact of that rugby team on a nation came from the collaboration between Mandela and Pienaar, the rugby captain. In addition, there are contrasts with other leaders: de Klerk, the jailers and Mandela’s security forces. Interestingly, the coaching staff don’t really feature in this sports movie. See my more complete commentary here.

2. Amazing Grace – Two leaders with very different styles, roles and methods. Everyone focuses on William Wilberforce, but after watching this one I had to pick up a biography on William Pitt. Other leadership influences show up in the abolitionists, John Newton, Wilberforce’s wife and opposition leadership.

3. Lincoln – An interesting portrayal of situational leadership as Lincoln tries to gain support for the 13th Amendment. One of the most interesting angles is the various members of congress struggling to summon courage. And a fascinating portrayal of Lincoln’s need to lead his family. Read more of my thoughts here.

4. Shawshank Redemption – While one of my favourite movies, I didn’t think of it as a leadership movie until someone made a comment on my blog post. Dufresne is an extremely unassuming man who ends up leading fellow inmates and influencing a lot of people with titles and authority.

5. Braveheart – I almost didn’t want this one to rank so highly, but it really does wrestle with leadership issues, especially between William Wallace, who practically begs others to step up and lead. There are lots of contrasting leadership styles, including the king, the king’s son, the nobles and the magistrate who tortures him.

6. Hoosiers – An unconventional leader, an impossible challenge and lots of setbacks make this a great story. In the genre of coaching—where leadership is expressed primarily through drawing out potential and influencing a team to do something it didn’t believe it could do—this movie is at the top.

7. Captain Philips – A ship captain with huge expertise in one area finds himself thrust into areas of weakness and tapping into unknown leadership ability. He goes toe-to-toe with a young, hungry, adaptive Somali leader who makes the most of limited resources and takes on a Goliath.

8. The Queen – A more recent retelling of the Madness of King George, this movie details a prime minister who must guide the monarch through a major crisis. Unlike the other movie, this story portrays leadership by the monarch and the PM and her next-in-line. She listens to advice and manages to avert disaster with decisive leadership.

9. Apollo 13 – Leadership is demonstrated at multiple levels in this story, from the flight commander to the grounded astronaut in the simulator who swallows his disappointment. But it’s the flight director who keeps everyone inspired, on mission and committed to not giving up. He adjusts his leadership style to meet the crisis.

10. The Hunger Games – I’m thinking of the body of work: the three books and the two movies released so far. A young lady who is simply struggling to survive finds herself with a boatload of followers and has to learn how to lead a movement she never asked to lead.

11. The Madness of King George – What happens when a positional leader is sidelined while a potential usurper waits in the shadows? That’s the challenge of prime minister William Pitt, who has to find a way to manage the crisis, hold off the coups and lead upward.

12. Courage Under Fire – One moment of courageous leadership by an unlikely leader is blurred by others who try to twist it for their own purposes or even bury it. The way the story is told is innovative, though it all boils down to one moment of leadership when I wish we’d been able to get more of a glimpse of what Meg Ryan’s character was thinking and feeling.

13. To Kill a Mockingbird – A lawyer takes a stand to fight for his convictions and a minority, despite huge obstacles and cultural pressure. He manages to lead those he advocates for and he models new behaviour to a mob of whites, but his greatest leadership is to his family.

14. Moneyball – A new leader, facing an impossible challenge, finds a trick to even the playing field and in doing so, reinvents the entire game. He has to persevere through enormous pressure from the system. One of his most courageous decisions was to show loyalty rather than take the high-paying, high-power role offered him at the end.

15. Erin Brockovich – A “nobody” with courage, perseverance and principles puts in the hard work, taking on a Goliath and winning. No doubt she’s a hero, but leadership is influencing others. Perhaps her greatest feat in leadership is leading upward. While her boss has the title, she sets the direction for the law firm.

16. Amistad – There’s huge potential for leadership lessons in an opportunistic slave who starts a revolt and then has to learn how to overcome huge obstacles to get his followers back to Africa. Unfortunately, the story is ultimately told about a lawyer and a former president who have to figure out how to communicate with and for them. So I found the leadership lessons diffused.

17. Elizabeth: Golden Age – This was a story of one of history’s most powerful women facing incredibly-difficult challenges. I could have moved it higher, but I temper this one with the fact I haven’t seen the first movie with Cate Blanchett, and I hear it’s better.

18. Thirteen Days – The story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is an excellent portrayal of the complexities of leadership when everything is on the line. From fiery generals used to getting their own way to cabinet secretaries who have to carry the leader’s vision to a president who needs to know which voices to listen to, this movie drops you into the agony of decision-making when there is no good decision.

19. The Iron Lady – An interesting delivery of the story of a woman who stepped up to give leadership when no one in her male-dominated world was willing to. She courageously made and stuck with decisions, knowing full well the consequences and lack of support she’d get. It’s a bittersweet movie because it shows the insignificant retirement of an enormously successful public servant.

20. Remember the Titans – Another great coaching movie, with lots of overtones and cultural ramifications. It shows how great leadership and sports success can bring people together like nothing else.

See the other blogs in this series:

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