new course is giving senior managers the chance to learn about leadership by
studying the actions of film icons. We look at how they measure up. By Stephen
This article first appeared in Personnel Today, 14 Nov 2000
Films, according to Empire magazine editor Emma Cochrane, are increasingly
anti-business. "There is no doubt that an anti-business message is an
important ingredient," she says. But she also thinks there is a real
fashion against films about leadership. "They do not play to the right
demographic groups to make successful cinema. We have seen too many idealised
presidents deciding that being a hero involves bombing the Middle East."
Despite this trend, Roffey Park Management Institute is piloting a business
leadership course based on film. For £1,150, Images of Leadership invites
directors and senior managers to compare and contrast the diverse leadership
merits of a host of real and imaginary screen leaders from Elizabeth I to
Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Spartacus to Gordon Gekko.
Nothing, you might think, could have less bearing on business life. Film is
fiction, after all. But Paul Roberts, assistant director at Roffey Park, says
the point is not to mimic leadership as portrayed on screen.
"Films are a powerful shared experience – far more so than
novels," he says. "Everyone is hugely influenced by them. If we think
of what we mean by a servant leader, many people will think of Gandhi. The
purpose is to use the clips to explore leadership styles."
Since common ideas about leadership are often based on celluloid images – it
was said of Ronald Reagan that he’d seen too many John Wayne films – one
difficulty the course has had is in identifying non-heroic models. Great
stories do not bear much relation to modern management theory which stresses
the role of followers in creating leaders.
That said, Roberts thinks there are scenes in films which illustrate
contemporary points. "In Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, there is a long
discussion about land ownership, with uncertainty surrounding the role of
leader flicking with each camera shot. Saving Private Ryan distorts the role of
traditional heroic leader by having the hero very influenced by his unit,"
Films are also a useful way of ramming home another trendy leadership
dictum: business leaders need to have "a higher purpose" – a cause.
"A business has to make money but the challenge is how to make money while
creating a wider sense of purpose which capable, talented people share,"
On this, Mike Straw, partner in management consultancy Breakthrough
Technologies, thinks films can offer a view of different leadership styles. But
he argues that they do not help shift people’s perspectives of what leadership
actually is. "While the truly visionary business leaders may have some
sense of crusade about them, in reality, on a day-to-day level, the fundamental
skills that are needed are in engaging people in a specific task, rather than
in a cause," he says.
Films need personalities. But according to John Potter, visiting professor
at the Centre for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter, leadership is
not about personality. "Leadership is about processes rather than
personality. Studying personality yields only a parsimonious and thin version
of what leadership is." As a way into the subject, however, he thinks
films are valid. "There are few more immediate mediums," he says.
CHARACTER: Henry V (1387-1422)
FILM: Henry V
Director: Laurence Olivier
Starring: Laurence Olivier
Leadership style: Henry V takes the grand, glorious, patriotic
attitude to leadership. With invigorating speeches and bloody derring-do on the
battlefield at Agincourt, the film marked a stirring salute to high adventure.
In Olivier’s Henry there was a kind of youthful joy in the grim duty of killing
for your country. The actor/director was actually released from wartime duties
to make it, because the Government could see the patriotic opportunity to
"restore glory to the common man’s thinking about his own country".
Motives: Henry is moved by a combination of patriotic fervour and
injustice at his political situation: denied his claim to the throne of France,
he invades the country to reclaim it.
Verdict: In modern management theory this style of leadership is
often said to be irrelevant to the business of motivating a diverse range of interest
groups. This is the ultimate in leader as hero. There is emphasis on duty and
resolution, but also on personal example in rallying his forces.
CHARACTER: Gandhi (1869-1948)
Director: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley
Leadership style: The cinematic blurb said: "His goal was
freedom…his strategy was peace…his weapon was his humanity." Gandhi
was entirely principled in his passive resistance to British rule, but his
strength lay partly in personal suffering. He was frequently imprisoned for
leading campaigns of civil disobedience, often resorting to hunger strikes. He
led by example: in his fasts for self-purification, his simple hand-spun
loincloth and peasant’s sandals; he was the model servant leader. A Mahatma is
a Hindu "great soul".
Motives: By 1942, Gandhi was advocating independence as the future
for India, a goal finally realised in 1947. But he was firmly wedded to the
principle of non-violence, and was ultimately killed by Hindu fanatics for
agreeing to partition.
Verdict: Gandhi’s influence involved principle, purpose and cause.
The power of personal example enabled him to lead effectively. When, on a visit
to London, he was asked what he thought of British democracy, he said he
thought it would be a very good idea.
CHARACTER: TE Lawrence (1888-1935)
FILM: Lawrence of Arabia
Director: David Lean
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif
Leadership style: This is a film about an enigma. We are not meant to
understand TE Lawrence. So while we see his charisma in helping stir up the
Arabs to revolt against the Turks, his supreme knowledge of Arab culture and
his bravery in blowing up the Damascus-Medina railway, we never get to see what
Motives: While he was moved by the Arab cause, he wanted total
anonymity. This desire led him to enlist under assumed names in the Tank Corps,
eventually becoming TE Shaw. The film is designed for the viewer never to
understand his motives.
Verdict: Lawrence is a peculiarly British leader. Brave, charismatic
and principled, he was also cold and rather odd. He had no desire for glory – a
lesson indeed for contemporary business leaders. But he also had real depth of
knowledge of Arab culture.
CHARACTER: Malcolm X (1925-1964)
FILM: Malcolm X
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Denzel Washington
Leadership style: Bold, principled and upright, black Muslim Malcolm
Little changed his name to reflect his rootlessness in racist American society.
Much of his legend is built round his speeches and his justification of violence
in self-defence: "If a man puts his hand on you, send him to the
cemetery." The film treats its subject’s life as a journey of personal
Motives: Malcolm X’s motives change during the film. After visiting
Mecca, he changes from being anti-white and anti-civil rights movement, towards
seeking unity with other civil rights leaders.
Verdict: Again, this is leader as hero. There is great emphasis on
the power of speech to inspire people. Perhaps the virtue of this film as a leadership
lesson might be in Malcolm X’s changing attitudes towards black struggle. He is
heavily influenced throughout by the views of African state heads.
CHARACTER: Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush
Leadership style: The film takes us through Elizabeth’s
transformation from frightened and passionate girl to the frightening and
passionless Queen who assumes the throne in 1558. Through plots, counter-plots
and hatred for Catholic Queen Mary, she evolves into the imperious and shrewd
Motives: The key motive here is Protestantism. After losing Calais in
the year she came to power, Elizabeth’s reign centred on the battle to
recapture France through the Wars of Religion.
Verdict: Machiavelli pontificated at length on whether it was better
for leaders to be loved or feared. Elizabeth decided on the latter. There is
material here, however, for those who ponder the isolation of the powerful, the
pain of high office.
CHARACTER: Gordon Gekko
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas
Leadership style: Gordon Gekko is the apotheosis of 1980s greed, of
corruption by money and the dysfunctional society. Yet again, in this film, it
is his charisma, speeches and bearing which sway a naïve innocent, played by
Charlie Sheen. His "Greed is good" speech sounds uncannily plausible:
social wealth is the by-product of the pure greed of some.
Motives: Gekko’s motivation is money, but also its common corollary:
power. But the film is about the corruption of leadership – when it is used for
the wrong motives. The lesson at the end is woollily liberal: there is the good
business of making things – of manufacturing – and the bad business of bond
trading and high finance.
Verdict: Leading people astray provides rich material for leadership
specialists. When money becomes a cause, the film seems to argue, the result is
inevitably bad. Only when money is a by-product can it be good. Scant relation
to real life, of course, but this film is an interesting study into the dangers
of leadership in the wrong hands.
CHARACTER: Obi-Wan Kenobi
FILM: Star Wars
Director: George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness
Leadership style: Great tides of swill have been written about the
complex moral universe of Star Wars, but in the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi we
have the ultimate wise, sad mentor – the polar opposite of the evil emperor.
Obi-Wan leads young Luke Skywalker first to apprehend, respect, desire and
finally gain, "the Force", always warning it can be used for both
good and evil.
Motives: By convincing him of his destiny, Obi-Wan inspires Skywalker
to do what he himself failed to do: take up the fight against the emperor. He
convinces Skywalker that the power of a Jedi knight is in transcending the
distinction between good and evil.
Verdict: The message, ultimately, is perhaps that leaders are
helpless. On their own they can do nothing. But through their agency, great
things can be achieved: their power resides in the power they grant others.
Director: George Stevens
Starring: Alan Ladd
Leadership style: Shane is the mysterious stranger with the mythic
swagger and Homeric avenging purpose. He is the outsider, whose claim to
leadership lies in his bearing, which in turn rests on his ability with a gun.
There is a coolness and detachment which captivates the child, Joey.
Motives: Shane is a gunfighter who wants to renounce his past and
become a homesteader. But he cannot. In the lawless frontiers, his strength is
that he does not belong and there is a sense of despair in his knowledge that
he exists only for confrontation. He is the ultimate reluctant mediator.
Verdict: Shane is a familiar movie hero: the man without a past or a
future. He is forced to help the homesteaders against the ranchers, though he
does not wish to. An absorbing study in leadership – he is the only one capable
of winning although there is no purpose beyond immediate survival.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune
Leadership style: Sanjuro is a ronin, a masterless samurai, who is
forced to choose between warring factions "when both sides are equally
bad". His style is sure, efficient, cynical, competent and worldly-wise.
Motives: The motives are deeply cloudy. In the end he is forced to
side with the innocent villagers but he threatens to kill anyone who is
grateful to him. He despises the meaninglessness of material gain.
Verdict: This is glorification of the individual against the group:
the efficiency of the samurai against the bloodlust of bullies. But again his
leadership lies in his detachment: eventually he feels compelled to help the
villagers, but only as a reluctant leader by dint of his swordsmanship alone.
CHARACTER: David Carr
FILM: Land & Freedom
Director: Kenneth Loach
Starring: Ian Hart
Leadership style: This film examines the famous tension on the left
between those who seek to lead working class organisations and grass roots
socialist organisations, with the message firmly that the leaders will always
Motives: The young Liverpudlian communist signs up in the brigades in
the Spanish Civil War out of ideological duty. But he is eventually forced to
tear up his party card on witnessing the Communists’ attitudes to the Partido
Obrero de Unificacion Marxista. The film controversially blames the Communists
for the destruction of the POUM. It is about right amid a wealth of wrong.
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Verdict: This film is likely to be used solely for a 20-minute
discussion about how to divide the land after a village is captured: a clear
problem, discussion and solution format. But there is also material on how to
lead. The POUM was a disputatious grass-roots organisation without clear
leadership; the brigades were traditional military operations: the message of
the film is that the latter stifle the real socialism of the former.