This post was originally published in October 2014 as a guest post for the Department for Work and Pensions ‘Leadership Matters’ blog.
David Wraith has worked in internal communications and employee engagement roles for over 20 years, and was part of the DWP Internal Communications team between 2006 and 2011. He is currently Engagement and Communications Manager at global services provider Sodexo.
In 2011, he set up the website www.movieleadership.com to promote how movies can be used to inspire leaders and build leadership capability. In his blog, David looks at how the site came about, what he gets out of it and some key lessons from popular movies.
Five years ago I was on a DWP leadership programme, Making the Difference, and was struck by questions coming from the audience. It was clearly difficult for some managers to separate themselves from their daily business of meeting targets, and instead focus on becoming a better leader to enable their people to deliver those targets.
What was missing for those managers? Inspiration. The recognition that great leadership can have a transformative impact on your environment, your people, yourself. And that consequently it’s worth investing time to become the best leader you can possibly be.
Two years later I helped another Government agency, Ordnance Survey, to identify movie scenes which illustrated their own leadership model – the five leadership practices established by leadership researchers Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. I’ve always had a capacity to retain movie quotes and trivia, so I accepted the challenge with enthusiasm.
From that, I created the Leadership in the Movies site. Having found a handful of scenes for Ordnance Survey, I spent the summer researching movies and uncovering scenes which highlighted specific aspects of leadership, eventually publishing my results as an eBook.
For me, the power of movies to challenge, provoke and inspire is infinite. They resonate because, as stories, they engage people’s emotions – helping them to move towards lasting behaviour change. And those leadership practices and behaviours are within the reach of anyone.
On a personal level, I find writing hugely useful for my own personal development. As an engagement and communications professional, my reading list is packed with books on communication, influence, motivation and psychology. Writing about these subjects helps me clarify and organise my own thinking, giving me a deeper understanding of the concepts. Using movies as a lens, I can write about issues that interest me, and illustrate those issues in a novel way.
I’ve written over 60 posts for the Leadership in the Movies site. It’s time consuming, occasionally stressful, but ultimately rewarding. It’s a great feeling to publish a new post which I believe adds a different and unique perspective to what’s out there already.
So what can you learn from movies? Here are five to watch for different aspects of leadership. Why not try one for yourself? Let’s face it: there are worse ways to learn…
Challenge the process with Moneyball
One of Kouzes and Posner’s leadership practices is ‘challenging the process’: the ability to continually question the established way of doing things. No one demonstrates this better than Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, in Moneyball.
Beane shakes up the traditional baseball establishment by adopting radically different principles for player recruitment, and takes his poorly-funded team on a record-breaking winning streak as a result. He also discovers that that change is hard, and that perseverance and adaptation are two of the most important qualities in making it work.
Moneyball is packed with themes relevant to everyday leadership. You’ll find the importance of focusing on people’s strengths, rather than just their weaknesses; delivering bad news; managing performance effectively; developing and improving your leadership approach; and dealing with those little ‘niggles’ that can easily disengage a team and send them off course.
Hone your influencing skills with Twelve Angry Men
Recently revived as a popular West End play, Twelve Angry Men is perhaps the ultimate lesson in influencing. Henry Fonda’s Juror 8 is the lone dissenting voice against 11 fellow jurors in a murder case. But one by one, he turns each around to his way of thinking.
Try and spot the wide range of techniques he uses to challenge the views of his peers, and gradually win them over.
A masterclass in presenting: An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore’s famous ‘PowerPoint slideshow’ movie An Inconvenient Truth was so influential that it helped to sway public opinion on global warming. It’s also a 90 minute masterclass in presenting. You can learn simply from observing Gore’s warm, open, engaging style. But count as well the huge range of techniques Gore packs into his presentation: photos, videos, quotes, personal anecdotes, humour, story, emotion, contrasts, analogies and a strong call to action.
There’s also a memorable ‘STAR’ moment – ‘something they’ll always remember’ – where he dramatically illustrates the predicted rise in greenhouse gas emissions by elevating himself on a raised platform.
Model the way with Invictus
Nelson Mandela is rightly one of the recent history’s most revered leaders, and Invictus remains the movie that best showcases his leadership qualities. One of those qualities was his ability to ‘model the way’: to set a challenging path for his people but one which he consistently demonstrates in his personal approach.
Invictus also reveals how Mandela is willing to take a stand for what he personally believes is right, even when it contradicts popular opinion. In one scene Mandela intervenes to prevent his sports council changing the Springbok name and emblem. ”You’re risking your future as our leader,” an aide tells him. “The day I am unwilling to do that is the day I am no longer fit to lead,” he responds.
Set high expectations: Apollo 13
One of my favourite movie lines is an engineer’s response to the assertion that NASA has to get the power output of the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft down to 12 amps to bring it back to Earth. “You can’t run a vacuum cleaner on 12 amps!” he protests. It’s a line that encapsulates the enormity of the task facing NASA.
But in flight controller Gene Kranz, they have the ideal leader for the task. Kranz sets the tone for his team with his famous line that “failure is not an option”. His resounding positivity, high expectations and focus on ‘working the problem’ inject his team with the focus they need to pull off an amazing feat. It’s a film well worth watching for any leader addressing a difficult challenge.