Top 20 leadership movies (that I’ve seen)

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. Continue reading

Advertisements

Courage and Leadership

[republished from Wycliffe Canada’s Prayer Alive publication]

You can never go wrong asking God to give leaders courage. Leadership and courage go hand-in-hand.

Why?

First, because leadership is about taking people from one place to another, and very rarely does that journey come with a clear roadmap. Leaders may have seen some glimpse of the “promised land” or experienced some part of it for themselves, but they are blazing a new trail. When I think of a journey like that, Moses comes to mind. The only way he kept his vision and faith in the wilderness was by spending copious amounts of time face-to-face in God’s presence.

And second, because leadership is a personal practice lived out on a public stage. Each leader has to figure out how much of his personal struggles to reveal to his followers. Frankly, many of our models have come from a generation that kept a “stiff upper lip,” giving a false impression that they didn’t struggle internally. I’m grateful for the young generations who are dropping that pretense. Some of them gain incredible power from admitting their failures and lack of courage. Joshua was that kind of leader. Why would he need four reminders to be “strong and courageous” in Joshua 1 if he wasn’t having doubts? Gideon was this kind of leader as well. I love the insights we get into his almost-daily need for assurance of God’s presence. (Judges 6:12, 16, 34, 36-40, 7:10)

During a recent trip to Southeast Asia where I had a chance to interact with a large number of the leaders of Wycliffe and SIL, I noticed a lot of tired leaders. I suspect some were discouraged, some tired from pushing themselves too hard, and some burning out from working in areas of weakness for too long. So I appreciated an early exhortation from Wycliffe Global Alliance Director Kirk Franklin. He unpacked the lessons God had taught him during his just-completed sabbatical. He specifically noted the lesson learned from Jethro’s counsel to Moses in Exodus 18: God doesn’t want exhausted leaders.

Kirk went on to list a few applications for leaders in the Ten Commandments. For instance, “Do your Sundays look any different from any other day of the week?” He then set the tone for the meetings by confessing six areas of sin that he struggled with as a leader. Kirk’s personal disclosure was a powerful challenge for all of us.

To lead differently requires courage, both in the public and the personal aspects of leadership. To trust your vision and follow God’s direction in the face of doubts, obstacles and sabotage takes incredible fortitude. To admit that you are “not able to carry all these people alone” (Numbers 11:14), and ask for help, takes boldness. To risk your position by admitting your weaknesses requires inner strength. Even taking time for rest reflects a deep faith in God’s ability to carry your load.

So we need to pray for our leaders to be “courageous in the ways of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 17:6). More and more I return to the argument Moses had with God in Exodus 33, where he begged for assurance of God’s presence. We to whom God has given this sacred trust need a daily reminder of that presence. The only way we can be successful is if, like Moses, the Lord is with us.

Where are the leaders?

This morning I read about a king with a strong compass and who therefore avoided popularism:

The Lord was with Jehoshaphat, because he walked in the earlier ways of his father David. He did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments, and not according to the practices of Israel. Therefore the Lord established the kingdom in his hand. And all Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat, and he had great riches and honor. His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord. And furthermore, he took the high places and the Asherim out of Judah. (2 Chronicles 17:3-6 ESV)

The line that struck me was “His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord.” As proof, it says he sought God and walked in his commandments rather than the practices of the culture around him.

So I enjoyed reading Thomas Friedman’s article this morning, Leadership Just Twittered Away. It’s probably available in a number of publications, but just for fun, I’ll link to the National Times in Australia. Friedman recognizes that technology has brought a lot of upsides, like increased participation, innovation and transparency. But, he cautions, “If everyone is ‘following’, who is leading?”

Friedman’s conclusion:

”Trusting people with the truth is like giving them a solid floor,” adds Seidman. ”It compels action. When you are anchored in shared truth, you start to solve problems together. It’s the beginning of coming up with a better path.”

That is not what we’re seeing from leaders in America, the Arab world or Europe today. You would think one of them, just one, would seize the opportunity to enlist their people in the truth: about where they are, what they are capable of, what plan they need to get there and what they each need to contribute to get on that better path. Whichever leader does that will have real ”followers” and ”friends” – not virtual ones.

In other words, the world is crying for a Jehoshaphat today.

 

A fresh set of eyes

Anytime you get a new person in your organization, you have an opportunity. Anytime a fresh set of eyes looks at the rut you live in, they’re going to see things that never occur to you. The key is to give that person permission to point out things that don’t make sense. Let them question everything. Your goal as an organization is to maximize that key window of opportunity.

I’ll never forget a testimonial I heard in Junior High about a chain-smoking biker who visited church for the first time. While I don’t remember the entire talk, one line lodged in my mind: At the door, a waiter handed him a menu and then walked him to his seat. Growing up in the church, it never occurred to me how absurd some of our common practices must be to those we desperately want to step in our doors. Why do we do them? Probably because no one ever asked why.

I’m trying to take advantage of my transition time with Wycliffe Canada, especially the months where I don’t have the title yet. I’m asking lots of questions, and I’m okay with the appearance of naivete. I’m fully aware that if I try to act like I know the answer, I’ll cheat Wycliffe Canada out of the foundational questions I should be asking. That’s the approach Patrick Lencioni endorses in his leadership book, Getting Naked.

So a fresh set of eyes is critical to challenge our practices and point out the obvious that is no longer apparent to the insiders.

That said, I think the emperor knew he had no clothes. Deep down, we know we’re maintaining absurdity. We know that we need to make a change; we just don’t want to do it. At the Catalyst conference a few years ago, Andy Stanley shared a quote that didn’t originate from him but stuck with him. Likewise, it stuck with me. It’s a pair of questions to ask your team, to help them move toward action and courage:

If our Board were to fire all of us today and bring in a new team, what changes would that new group of leaders make? What’s to stop us from stepping out of the room, walking back in and doing the same things?

That quote led me to my conviction for any job:

If I know what I need to do but don’t have the energy to do it, it’s time to step aside.

“How much time do I have?”

Sample’s second rule for decision-making:

2. Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.

But isn’t that procrastination? First, let me say that our western, negative view of that word is not necessarily universal. Procrastination is negative when it stems from a lack of courage. Instead, Sample espouses conscious and even courageous “artful procrastination.” Certainly, postponing a decision has its consequences: in our busy workplaces, with full inboxes, a strategy to leave more on your plate for tomorrow is contrarian.

I borrowed the question above from president Harry Truman, who always sought clarity on the timing for a decision as his first response. To misunderstand the timing required for a decision is to choose the wrong method of decision-making. For instance, a snap decision in a case that should have involved consultation with experts could be disastrous. A collaborative process in a fight or flight scenario could be deadly. It might be worthwhile researching how Truman applied this methodology to as grave a decision as dropping atomic bombs on another sovereign nation, but that’s another topic for another day. Sample’s point is that “the timing of a decision could be just as important as the decision itself.”

Now, Sample isn’t talking about simply putting things off or failing to make a decision. A non-decision is a decision (and leaders have consciously used that method to great success in a variety of arenas). Knowing the timing allows a leader to wait strategically. It can often open up more options for a leader, providing a beautiful solution that wasn’t available at the time the question was posed. However, it comes with a risk: it can slam the door on decent solutions. Simply put, circumstances will often make a decision for you, and there’s a fine line between a wise leader who reads the timing well and a foolish one who misses an opportunity. The point is to make a decision “and get on with it” when the time is appropriate to choose, whether the conditions improved or not.

I’ve heard CEOs say before that they pretty much expect to be 50% right on their decisions. That’s not comforting! But leadership and decision-making are arts, not sciences. Experience teaches when to listen and when to make a judgment, when to wait and when to conclude a matter. This question is a great place to start, because it puts a leader in position to follow the best road to a decision. Whether she’s right or wrong, perhaps the real question is what she does next, after the decision is made.

Sample’s final thought on the matter:

It is one thing for a leader to delegate a decision to a lieutenant, but an entirely different (and unacceptable) thing for him to surrender a decision to fate or to his adversaries. Therein lies the difference between artful and cowardly procrastination.

Agree? Disagree? Does this spur a question or reaction? Give me your thoughts!

Celebrating failure

The key to innovation is risk.

It has two key measurables: success and failure. Success seems like a better metric for innovation. But here’s the problem with success: if you succeed on your first, or even your second try, you’ll never know what other radically innovative ideas you never got to. When I was a graphic designer, I knew what to do with my first few ideas. I worked diligently to articulate them, get them down on paper… and then crumple them up and toss them. First ideas are cliché. They’re your mind’s inclination toward laziness — knowing that if you can come up with a quick solution, you can save yourself the emotional and physical stress of actually working hard to find a great solution.

You cannot undervalue those first few ideas. I wasn’t being completely facetious when I said I worked diligently on them. It’s a discipline you have to go through to actually write them down. If you don’t, you hold onto them in some form. The idea is to fail and then move on toward truly great ideas. I’ve seen a lot of recent design school graduates who were never taught the discipline part; they go straight to the computer and start tinkering without taking the time to brainstorm and sketch and get the failed ideas out of their system.

Assuming your organization is somewhat healthy, where you see failure, you’re seeing risk. Where you’re seeing risk, you’re seeing innovation. Therefore, if you want a culture of innovation, you need to take the time to honor failure.

This post is relevant in the context of my last few posts. Taking a risk on someone who has failed before takes courage. To act as if the Holy Spirit has made a person new opens yourself and your organization to failure. Every one of those “projects” will not turn out as a win. The question is whether you’re expecting perfection, or if you’re going in prepared for some failure and taking steps to mitigate the risk.

When’s the last time you celebrated failure? When is the last time you reported it as a key metric for innovation? Failing is not the end; rather, it’s a sign of health.

Spotting redemption

What is the place for people like Barnabas in management? Saul would never have completed his turnaround if Barnabas hadn’t noted the fruit of his change. John Mark would have been forever labeled a quitter if Barnabas hadn’t taken him under his wing, even at the expense of his partnership with Paul. When the Holy Spirit does a work in one of these “wrong people,” do we have people tuned to notice that change and advocate on their behalf? Do we have the courage or the margin to take a risk on someone working to rebuild trust?

About four years ago in my management career, I decided that I’m willing to take on one “project” at any given time. As long as I’m able to fully support the entire team, I’m willing to give special attention to one person who has had some issues identified in previous jobs or who is beginning to discover new leadership abilities. I’ve seen the problems that arise when a manager has more than one of these cases, and the department becomes known for being a collection of wounded souls or the manager becomes known for his soft heart and inability to turn anyone away.

Having said that, I love the story of David and his band of malcontents in 1 Samuel 22. While Saul was king and David an outcast, men who were in trouble, in debt or discontented gravitated to David’s leadership. When he became king, his “mighty men” took office and filled legitimate positions, such as bodyguard and special forces. Fiercely loyal to this man who took a risk on them, they went on to accomplish great feats like conquering Jerusalem and defeating giants alongside him. When David suggested one time that he’d love a drink from the well in his hometown, three of them busted through enemy lines just to get him a cup of water.

The leader who can spot potential and identify the work of the Holy Spirit in someone is a rare gem. Time and time again, God has used people like that to complete His work of redemption, giving the wrong person a second chance.

  • Jethro helped restore Moses after murder
  • Jesus gently forgave Peter and gave him a new mission
  • Ananias and Barnabas took a chance that Saul’s repentance was real
  • Barnabas took John Mark under his wing when Paul gave up on this young quitter

Who is filling that role in your church and in your organization? May God give us as leaders the eyes to see people the way He does and the courage to follow through on a hunch.