Learning Leadership From The Movies

“Emerging leaders must exit the managerial cocoon—a butterfly cannot stay in its shell.” — M. Johannsen

Many times we talk about learning about charismatic leadership through books, but there is another way; watching good television shows and movies.

Traditionally, people are passive consumers of information — shutting off their minds while watching the screen. However, observing transformational leadership in action can increase one’s understanding of the phenomena.

For Political Leadership

The West Wing

The West Wing is about an imaginary President played by Martin Sheen. It focuses on his domestic staff as they deal with numerous unforeseen crisis and the trials and tribulations experienced when working to implement policy.

This is definitely a series worth watching. It’s entertaining, fast-paced, dramatic, and has top-notch writers and actors that present situations that holds and captures your attention.

Emergent Leadership Movies

Twelve O’Clock High

The story is set during World Word II. General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over a bombing squadron whose efficiency was compromised in which the previous leader suffering from combat fatigue and the reality of seeing friends and comrades suffering from wounds, many dead, some dying or others getting shot down.

Emerging leader Savage uses heavy handed tactics to establish his authority, like many managers in departments or organizations facing turnaround situations, Consequently, the movie shows morale deteriorating and by the numbers performance plummeting.

The movie vividly illustrates the limits of authority and what happens when one over uses punishment, fear and intimidation. Savage succeeds in turning around the unit, but pays a tremendous price.

One learns from this movie a series of lessons on tactics emerging leaders should and should not use for turn around and crisis situations.

Twelve Angry Men

You are stuck with a twelve strangers you would rather not be with. It’s very hot in the room and a decision has to be made whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. Almost everyone present wants to leave.The first vote is taken and it’s eleven to one—you being the only one to vote innocent. What to do?

A jury has a foreman, but that person may or may not be the real leader of the group. In this movie, emerging leader Juror 8 (played by Henry Fonda) rather than caving to peer pressure, uses a number of different techniques to get the others in the room to reconsider their positions.

Through the cleaver use of subtle patterns of persuasion and questions, Fonda emerges as the de facto leader of the group. After watching this leadership movie, you may want to forget about the MBA and get a degree in psychology instead.

The Return Of The King

The third of Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on J.RR Tolkein’s books, the leadership movie won eleven Oscars including best picture and best director in 2004. Along with stunning special effects, the movie documents the struggle of a group of Friends on a great Quest.

One of the two major themes in The Return of The King is a study of what emerging leaders must do. Aragorn as the emerging leader and heir to the throne faces the challenge of legitimacy. How to get others to accept his right to rule?

This leadership movie has parallels in family business. How is the son or daughter going to establish the legitimate right to run the “kingdom?” It is also a critical issue for anyone assuming a position of responsibility with a new group since emerging leaders cannot rely only on authority.

The Thing

Considered one of the best science fiction movies of the 50s, this suspense packed movie is a tale of a polar expedition terrorized by the alien from a crashed flying saucer.

Initially, the suspense was generated from the fact that the two groups at the arctic research station (the military and the scientists) have radically different views of what to do with the visitor. Is this Thing dangerous or not? Can it be carrying microbes dangerous to all life on earth?

A classic study of value to emerging leaders, it pits two groups against each other as they strive to figure out what to do next. As in many crisis situations, there is fear of the unknown and immense uncertainty in terms of the correct course of action.

In an environment of crisis, several emerging leaders may try to establish legitimacy. Some succeed, others are ignored, and established leaders can gain or lose influence.

This leadership movie has little blood, guts and gore, but it is a great study of what emerging leaders must do to prevail in a crisis.

Transformational Leadership Movies

My Fair Lady. How positive expectations can bring about change in others (along with bit of coaching). Watch the Trailer.

The King’s Speech. Along with My Fair Lady, this is a movie that documents that power of leadership expectations. Watch The Trailer.

Business Leadership

Barbarians At The Gate

This made for television movie is an interesting study in business leadership based on KKR’s acquisition in 1985 of RJR Nabisco for 25 billion, still one of the largest leveraged buy-outs in corporate history. The story is an interesting contrast between the leadership styles of the two principles involved in this deal. One is F. Ross Johnson, who is CEO of RJR and and the other is Henry Kravis, who heads up private equity firm of KKR. Ross is a classic marketing and sales personality while Kravis is the financial and accounting genius who looks at deals in terms of the numbers.

Wall Street

What great wealth and the pursuit of greed does to people has been long a classic theme of Hollywood movies from It’s a Wonderful Live on. In this story, a greedy, ambitious young broker is seduced by the power, the wealth, the status and yes, the personality and persuasive skills of Wall Street financier Gordon Gecko. Part of the drama takes place as Gecko pursues his “take no prisoners” and “greed is good” philosophy to acquire companies and strip them of their assets.

 Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

It has long been an article of faith that the purpose of a public corporation in to maximize profits. However, many practical and ethical considerations prevent most boards and CEO’s from actually doing so. One notable exception was Enron. In documentary, one gets to sees how both culture and leadership philosophy of Kenneth Ley and Jeff Skilling interact to influence business practices.

Other Movies of Interest

Down Periscope. The challenge: how to build a a grow a group of misfits into a high performance team.


Master and Commander. How one can prevail against an superior adversary and keep up morale in the face of bad odds

Leadership Skill Development