Leadership in Movies
When I earned my Masters in Business Administration, a small business owner friend of mine shared his – and apparently others’ – experience and brief assessment of newly minted MBA graduates: they’re frequently wrong, but never in doubt. As amusing as this is, one can learn a great deal in any advanced degree program, if one applies oneself. While not everything one learns in any school is applicable in the real world – there is too much theory vs. practical (and adaptive) solutions being taught – hopefully at least some of what is learned proves useful. One piece of the curriculum that I’ve found “rings true” in the business environments I’ve been in is leadership theory.
Firstly, some definitions of terms:
Thanks to Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, it is widely accepted that some of the essential attributes for leaders include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and social skills. The author has identified several leadership styles, classifying their competencies, most effective situations, and impact on climate (e.g. of those around him). Here is a quick primer of these styles (Harvard Business Review article “Leadership That Gets Results”):
Note that some of these leadership styles can have negative impacts. Below, I’ve limited my classic film protagonist examples to (male characters, and) those whose impact is ultimately positive, or that come out well in the end (even if it’s the VERY end).
The low-hanging fruit for examples of leadership styles in classic film are war movies. However, there’s not a lot of diversity because military leaders have a unique relationship with their subordinates, who aren’t employees and aren’t in their situations by choice because they were drafted for duty (vs. today’s volunteer forces). So, it’s easy to find examples of COERCIVE and PACESETTING leaders:
Among the plethora of COERCIVE examples, some of the best include: Errol Flynn’s character in The Dawn Patrol (1938), Clark Gable’s in Command Decision (1948), and Gregory Peck’s (aptly named General Savage) in Twelve O’Clock High (1949). In fact, according to an IMDb trivia entry (not always a reliable source), this latter film was used by U.S. Armed Forces for officers training. There are also lower chain-of-command examples, the prototypical Marine or Army drill sergeants like Stryker (John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)), Ryan (Richard Widmark in Take the High Ground! (1953)), and more recently ‘Gunny’ (Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge (1986)).
Several of these are borderline PACESETTING examples as well; certainly Rock Hudson’s character in A Gathering of Eagles (1957) is more definitively a pacesetter.
A more recent example of the PACESETTING style on film can be found in Ed Harris’s portrayal of Gene Kranz – “Failure is not an option” – in the true story drama of Apollo 13 (1995). It should come as no surprise that the real Kranz had received a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in his youth, years before joining NASA, an organization where formerly trained military men (and pilots like Kranz) were found in large numbers. For what it’s worth, I know from personal experience that the IBM Corporation built a management training course in the late 90’s around Apollo 13 (1995); it emphasized the crisis management and teamwork aspects of the narrative, which were critical to the successful outcome of the service module’s recovery mission.
It’s far more difficult to spot any of the other styles being exhibited in war movies. The Enemy Below (1957) is an exception in that both the American Naval Destroyer Captain Murrell (played by Robert Mitchum) and his wily German U-boat foe, Captain Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens), would be classified as COACHING leaders.
Regarding the other leadership styles, one example of the DEMOCRATIC/PARTICIPATIVE style is 12 Angry Men (1957) in which Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 character begins as the only one who votes “not guilty” in the initial “secret ballot” regarding the accused. He subsequently uses various techniques to gain “buy-in” such as rational persuasion, inspirational appeals, consultation, ingratiation, personal appeals, exchange, coalition tactics, legitimating tactics, and finally pressure to get each of the other jurors to change their “guilty” votes.
A cinematic example of the most ideal leadership style, with regards to its impact on drivers of change – the AUTHORITATIVE/VISIONARY leader (even though it’s a long time coming in the film) – is McDonald ‘Don’ Walling, William Holden’s character in Executive Suite (1954) … it’s just that it takes the entire movie for him to get there. Another may be Herman Boone, a character from another more recent film and real life portrayal (this time by Denzel Washington) in Remember the Titans (2000). Although Coach Boone demands perfection of himself and his team – a PACESETTING trait – and insists on compliance in what (as least initially) is a crisis situation – ala COERCIVE – his self-confidence and the clarity of his vision and direction results in his being a catalyst for change both on the field – the football team’s undefeated season – and off – a successful racial integration among teammates and in his community.
The most successful leaders use a variety of styles, depending upon the situation, which muddies the water when one attempts to pigeonhole anyone into a specific style. I tried to find examples which illuminate each definition, singularly. Unfortunately, the AFFILIATIVE leader is not as prevalent in film, at least among male protagonists.
Some other fascinating onscreen leaders that either fall into multiple style categories or defy easy classification altogether include Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)), Captain Kirk in the Star Trek series, and Walter Ramsey, Everett Sloane’s character in Patterns (1956).
© 2012 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog