The movie I went with for the Leadership Development Initiative film study was Invictus. In the end, what persuaded me was the timeliness of the story as well as the tight package of leadership lessons in 135 minutes. Let me share a few of my questions I used to stir conversation after the movie.

Invictus Study Guide

There were a number of characters who demonstrated leadership. We’ll start with Nelson Mandela, but most of us can’t identify with his character, so we’ll then look at a couple of the other characters.

  1. At the beginning, there’s a headline: “He can win an election, but can he run a country?” As Mandela grants, it’s a good question. Describe the leadership insight in that headline.
  2. Describe Mandela’s leadership style. In what ways—both bold strategies and small gestures—did Mandela demonstrate servant leadership?
  3. Can you think of any times when Mandela used a different leadership style? How did he employ situational leadership?
  4. What symbols and images were used by Mandela to bring about change?
  5. What are the upsides and challenges of attempting to repurpose a symbol?
  6. Mandela sets his goal on winning the World Cup—a goal he has no direct influence over. What strategies does he deploy?
  7. What did you learn about the relationship between leadership and followership?
  8. Name some of the other leaders in this movie. Which one do you most identify with? Why?
  9. Two in particular stand out, both of which are in #2 positions. Francois Pinaar, of course. But consider his chief of staff. In what ways does she support Mandela? In what ways does she challenge and become a foil to Mandela’s goals? What can we learn from her example?
  10. From Pinaar’s example, what can we learn about leadership when you’re not in the top position? How can leaders in #2 positions contribute to carrying forward the vision?
  11. The William Ernest Henley poem Invictus became an inspiration to Nelson Mandela during his captivity, and he uses it to inspire Pinaar. It ends with the lines, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” What does Mandela’s inspiration tell us about the importance of leading yourself before you lead others?
  12. While there’s no evidence that Mandela was a follower of Jesus Christ, his life exemplifies the gospel message. Ultimately, Mandela’s modeling and message of grace is what sets him apart in human history. In what ways does he lead his country into grace and forgiveness? What were the pundits saying about South Africa when Mandela was first released, and what was the result of his counter-cultural leadership?

As I mentioned in my April 12 post, I needed to pick a leadership movie for our film study in Wycliffe’s Leadership Development Initiative. After considering more than 65 suggestions from comments here and other social media venues, I settled on one. Let me start with the runner up, which didn’t make any of my previous lists.

Runner Up: Band of Brothers

I can’t summarize it any better than my friend Brandon Rhodes, who made the initial suggestion:

Band of Brothers is the best sustained exploration of leadership that I have ever seen. Hard to narrow it to one episode, though, since it unfolds the issue in such detail over many incidents—episode 1, 2, 3, 5, or 7 might do. That last one especially, as it shows someone who displays de facto leadership while not actually possessing rank over the soldiers he winds up leading, encouraging, and protecting. Note that the first episode takes leadership as its topic, and also includes not a single act of violence—which might make it more appropriate for an audience that might include people who are sensitive about violence in film.

Not having seen the whole series, I borrowed the disks and watched all of the episodes during a one-week window. An incredible series that looks at leadership from a lot of different sides, at different levels. Some of the characters who model leadership:

  • First Lieutenant Sobel models everything you don’t want to do. Do his problems stem from a lack of character or a lack of confidence? I suspect it’s the latter, and much of his autocratic style is designed to mask his personal deficiencies.
  • Like Brandon, I really enjoyed the servant leadership style of First Sergeant Lipton during unfathomable difficulty. While the ranked leaders fail, he steps into the void. He gains a title only after he demonstrates leadership.
  • Major Winters is of course the leadership hero. While others demonstrate greater feats on the battlefield and he only fires his gun once in battle, he’s a hero to me because he consents to be promoted and step away from his loyalty and love for Echo Company. The series does a great job of portraying his competence but also his sacrifice for the greater good.
  • I think my favourite leader has to be First Lieutenant Speirs. He seems to have an instinctual ability to lead men. I love the way he cultivates his image. He builds a reputation on a couple of brave, crazy acts that keep his men in awe and fear, then refuses their attempts to dispel the rumours and break down the image. And because he’s decisive and excellent under pressure when those traits are most needed, he becomes the rescuer the company needs, fostering a form of love and loyalty that I suspect went both ways.

In addition, the stories are extremely well-told and depicted. If you want evidence, ask my wife, who regularly falls asleep in action movies. She watched every minute of Band of Brothers. Well, she did drift off during that one battle… I loved the way every episode followed a different character and used different story-telling techniques. A very clever, well-done piece of art.

So if I liked the series so much, why did I not pick it? It’s not the violence that held me back. Brandon nails it: the series is a sustained exploration of leadership and didn’t suit the format of one tight movie. I wasn’t happy that any single episode would meet my need.

These movies are even more difficult to rank, except to go by how many recommendations I got, who recommended them and the fervor of their comments.

Lagaan – A Hindi film, with subtitles in English, that’s been on my list before. Now that it’s been cast in the leadership category, it’s very high on my list.

Elizabeth – “The first one is the best, I think.”

Gandhi – “Great for… vision, modelling the way, courage, determination, sacrifice, unselfishness”

October Sky – A couple of nominations for this one, the highlight being, “Laura Dern’s character (the high school teacher) who inspires, challenges, and stands up for the “rocket boys” in Coaltown, WV. She is not the main character, but is a key catalyst whose commitment and leadership brings about positive transformation of her students and community. One of my favorite movies.”

Gettysburg – I’m a fan of the Shaara Civil War series of books, and “Gods and Generals” was great. So this war leadership one has been on my list.

Coach Carter – “Great for… vision, setting clear expectations, team ethic, overcoming resistance, influencing.” There are just so many coaching movies. Guess I missed this one.

Secretariat – “The story of Penny Chenery is the best example of empowered female leadership in the last 20 years.”

Of Gods and Men – “It has more to do with the impact of a crisis on a small community – 8 monks in the face of terrorists in Algeria. You see their decision making process and how that changed. (Very moving and tragic story, but really better for crisis management, theology of risk, etc).”

12 O’Clock High – “A 1940′s WW2 movie about redeption vs. maxium effort…and the cost.” Great for “seeing what happens when a Leadership Change occurs.

Shake hands with the Devil – Somehow when my wife and I went through our Africa movie marathon, we missed this one about the Rwanda Genocide

 

Bonus:

These next ten aren’t on my list yet, but I could be convinced.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – “’Greed is good.’ Unfortunately, greed and sustainable leadership cannot occupy the same space.” Haven’t seen it, but I’m a big fan of Michael Douglas.

The Lady – The story of Aung San Suu Kyi is one I’ve been interested in. Just discovered there’s a movie, but is it any good? One person thought so.

Places in the Heart – A movie “for which Sally Field won the Oscar in portrayal of depression era TX widow who keeps family and farm together against great challenges.”

Freedom Writers – I got a few nominations for this one.

Norma Rae – “Older and less well-known, but 2 Oscars and Sally Field.”

Lion in Winter – “3 Oscars, O’Toole & Hepburn.”

The Hiding Place – “Those women are still leading others today through their story and testimony.” I did watch half of this the other day when my son was watching it for a school project.

The Emperor’s Club – Nominated “for its Integrity focus that is so absent in much leadership today and as a result also in those mentored.”

Mulan – The person who nominated this one felt strongly enough about it to give it three exclamation points.

Whip It – Hard to get excited about a roller derby movie as an excellent leadership portrayal, so maybe I’m missing something.

 

Credit: Some of the comments I received included links to other lists. So let me give due credit for some of these thoughts:

There’s another list that’s worth compiling, and that’s great movies that I need to watch again because I never thought of them as leadership movies. I don’t have a rubric for ranking these in any rigorous manner. I’d love to hear your comments on the leadership lessons you saw in these, and any other surprise leadership movies you want to suggest.

12 Angry Men – This one probably should have been on my top 20 list, but since I hadn’t seen it in some time and didn’t watch it through the lens of leadership, I’ll put it at the top of this list.

Dead Poets Society – Teacher movies are obviously leadership stories.

Ender’s Game – I just watched this story about an adolescent boy who struggles to live into the leadership role he was selected for. I’m putting it here because it didn’t make my top 20, and it wasn’t marketed as a leadership movie.

The Blind Side – The Mom shows great courage in fighting for someone no one would give a chance, and in doing so I suppose she influences a football player, a coach, a team and a community. But I wonder: is this a leadership story, or just a great hero story?

The Matrix – Like the Hunger Games, it’s a story about someone who discovers everyone thinks he’s “The One.” Great reluctant leadership concept.

A Knight’s Tale – This movie certainly has its fans. Maybe watching it a third time, I’ll see its importance and leadership lessons.

Kingdom Of Heaven – This comment reflects my memory of it as well, especially the last part: “Great story of a man struggling with the loss of his wife and his faith. Finds himself a noble in a strange land, and negotiates loyalty, responsibility, and leadership with poise and kindness… the best exemplar is Salah ad Din – he could have wiped out Jerusalem entirely, but restrained his power to preserve the city and allowed the Britons to retreat.”

Runaway Jury – I love the showdown between the two men trying to manipulate the jury.

A League of Their Own – “How to lead when you have an ineffective leader.” I do recall how bad Tom Hanks’ character was and how various women, especially Geena Davis’ character, stepped up. Probably lots of good leadership lessons, then.

The Social Network – “The story of the rise of Facebook provides for us a glimpse into the brilliant mind and potentially destructive personality of the most creative and talented NextGen business leader ever.”

Mary Poppins – “seriously!” Having just watched Saving Mr Banks (maybe that one should be on this list!), I want to see Mary Poppins again. I’ll bet it is a good leadership portrayal in an unexpected package.

Glory – Any military movie could make my list, but I do recall the interesting overtones. Someone mentioned it gets into emerging leadership, one of my favourite topics.

Mr Holland’s Opus – Another teacher movie.

Aliens – someone nominated this one because of Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Here’s the comment I got: “I just re-watched the first Hobbit movie and there are some surprisingly good themes related to unrecognized/unexpected potential (i.e. Bilbo as an ‘adventurer’), taking risks/courage (moving from our zone of comfort), conflict resolution, and an especially critical skill for every leader…swordsmanship when faced with an army of orcs!”

We Were Soldiers – Another military movie.

Trouble with the Curve – A “more subtle” exploration of leadership, where “I’d say the lady carries lead role.”

The Help – There is a whole genre of southern women who stand up to the system. This one was good, as was Fried Green Tomatoes. And I probably could have included Steel Magnolias if I had a more recent memory of it.

Chicken Run – Yes, I had difficulty including an animated movie, and I refuse to put Kung Fu Panda on this list, but here’s the comment that made me think again about Chicken Run: “Great for… vision, learning from failure, persistence, modelling the way, influencing, organisation, decisiveness.” Sounds like I should see it again, because I certainly wasn’t watching for those characteristics.

Bend it Like Beckham – The idea of leadership emerging from young, female characters in a cultural context that devalues both makes it worth watching again. I just remember it being enjoyable but a bit of a softball in terms of story-telling power.

 

Credit: Some of the comments I received included links to other lists. So let me give due credit for some of these thoughts:

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. (more…)

I’m co-leading a leadership development program for Wycliffe staff in June, and I’m responsible for selecting a movie as a case study to drive discussion about leadership principles. What movies should I consider? I’m definitely up for non-traditional suggestions. I’ll seed the conversation with a few from my list:

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.

Invictus — Another contrast in the leadership styles, roles and methods of two leaders. The impact of that rugby team on a nation came from the convergence of Mandela’s and Pienaar’s leadership.

Lincoln – An interesting portrayal of situational leadership as Lincoln tries to gain support for emancipation.

Ender’s Game – I just watched this story about an adolescent boy who struggles to live into the leadership role he was selected for.

What should be on my list, and why?

(more…)

Have you noticed that there’s a shortage of good stories about CEOs that don’t fall into the stereotype of wealthy-fat-cat-who-dodges-taxes-and-treads-on-the-poor? Where are the stories about a corporate or organizational president who wants to do what’s right but runs into constant ethical grey areas, and faces struggles with public perception, morasses with no good outcome and dark nights of the soul—not to mention overcoming his or her own personal weaknesses? The current TV series most benevolent to CEOs is Undercover Boss, in which the big boss risks embarrassment and ridicule as he or she attempts to step into the shoes of an average employee within their own company.

I think my hunger for good president stories led me to dust off The West Wing, the long-running TV series from the 2000s that focused on the staff serving with the president of the United States. The episode I watched last night depicted a White House mired in a controversy that was in large part caused by a president who was less than forthcoming with his own staff, let alone the public. It causes the president’s staff an enormous amount of extra work and personal expense, as they each have to hire their own lawyers. They begin to crack under the stress, and it becomes clear that the core problem is not overwork or personal cost: as loyal as the staff are to their president, they haven’t forgiven the president for not bringing them into the loop earlier. By the end of the episode, the staff entertain a number of possible steps their leader could take to repair the damage.

  • Does he need to commend their hard work and give them some time off?
  • Does he need to apologize and spend some time getting them on the same page again?
  • Does he need to lay out a bold vision for the future that stirs their hearts to get over their personal pain?

President Bartlet does apologize to them as a group, but it feels cursory. Then he moves to inspiration and paints a vision for what they’re going to accomplish in the years ahead – something new and noble and big. Then he says, “Break’s over.” In other words, rather than lighten their load, he increases their capacity to give even more.

Vision does that. It makes a load feel a little bit lighter and in fact reveals that the load-bearer has unknown additional capacity. In her book, Multipliers, Liz Wiseman offers research that says a manager who diminishes staff will only draw out about 45% of their staff’s capacity, while a multiplier will get closer to 90%. But a significant sample in her research suggested the staff actually gave more than 100%. In other words, the leader drew out of them capacity they didn’t even know they had.

I recently read a chapter of Mistakes Leaders Make, in which Dave Kraft says leaders sometimes sacrifice vision for busyness. After all, many who find themselves in leadership positions were promoted because of competence. They love to do the work themselves while their teams struggle because they don’t have the one thing the leader alone can provide: vision. He arrives at one of the best differentiating statements about leadership and management I’ve ever heard:

Biblical leadership is concerned with the future, while management is concerned with the present.

To back up his point, Kraft cites Marcus Buckingham: “What defines a leader is his preoccupation with the future. He is a leader if, and only if, he is able to rally others to the better future he sees.” Kraft concludes, “True leadership is always forward thinking and forward moving.”

So how does an average, life-size leader practice “visioning,” without the benefit of Hollywood script writers and triumphant background music?

Take time to dream. Kraft says visioning is not just one thing a leader does; rather, “a leader’s primary responsibility is to hear from God.” And for most of us, it won’t happen without hard work. A leader has to “set aside time for retreating to dream, think, plan, and pray.” Kraft’s point:

Biblical leadership requires taking time to be in God’s presence often enough to hear from him what he wants to do in the future in your church, ministry or group.

Unlock ability in people. Wiseman says multipliers identify talent, know what they’re capable of, invest in them and create space for them to thrive. In short, they inspire people to offer their best. But they don’t stop there.

Demand their best work. Multipliers follow inspiration with high expectations. They delegate ownership and then hold their staff accountable to the high standard they know they’re capable of. Wiseman says that while the best leader’s desks appear level, in reality they have a distinct slant, where accountability slides back to the person sitting on the other side of the desk. Responsibility is never delegated upward.

It’s the beginning of a new year. I always rebel against the idea of resolutions, but I realize that my practice of reflection at the new year more often than not leads me to set areas of improvement. Let’s just call a resolution a resolution. Here are three areas I want to improve in 2014:

1. Visioning. I think my team needs to hear more vision, and they need to be equipped to share vision and plan for the future with their own teams.

2. Accountability for high expectations. I need to throw greater challenges to my team and hold them accountable. I need to constantly move things off my plate so that I have space for visioning and follow-up.

3. Storytelling. Since storytelling is such an essential tool for conveying vision, I want to invest in my abilities to tell effective stories that inspire, challenge and emote rather than simply conveying information.

How about you? What steps do you need to take to improve your ability to share vision and draw the best out of your team?

By the way, I think President Bartlet went a bit light on his apology. There’s incredible power in apology, and I think he missed an opportunity.