From uplifting speeches to strategic decision-making, the silver screen has showcased countless portrayals of exceptional leadership for decades. Whether Erin Brockovich’s conviction or Maximus’ resilience, movies have a profound way of bringing leadership principles to life, allowing us to witness the transformational journeys of men and women and their impact on those they lead.
When you want to level up your leadership skills, where better to seek inspiration than the cinematic masterpieces that tell stories of iconic characters and historical heroes?
Read on to discover the valuable lessons in integrity, communication, and the ability to inspire others. Not only are these leadership movies supremely entertaining, but by watching and analysing them, you can glean meaningful insights that can enhance your own leadership capabilities.
1 Gladiator (2000)
Leadership lesson: resilience and strength
“Five thousand of my men are out there in the freezing mud. Three thousand of them are bloodied and cleaved. Two thousand will never leave this place. I will not believe that they fought and died for nothing.”
Maximus - Gladiator
Ridley Scott’s modern classic, Gladiator, is a gripping tale of bravery, honour, and leadership on an immense scale. Following Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius’ descent into slavery, the movie chronicles his eventual win via gladiatorial battles and triumphant revenge.
After losing his family and being demoted by arch-nemesis and emperor's son, Commodus, Maximus has to re-rise through the ranks fighting foes in the brutal gladiator arena. Despite facing immense personal tragedy and enduring hardships as a gladiator, Maximus remains committed to his values and principles throughout the movie.
With a clear vision and purpose, Maximus envisions a Rome free from corruption and tyranny, where justice prevails. His unwavering commitment to this vision drives him to lead a rebellion against the contemptible Commodus. By embodying his mantra of “strength and honour”, he inspires loyalty among his troops to make him a powerful symbol of leadership.
Although you won’t find yourself up against tyrannical Roman emperors in the workplace (nor staring down the jaws of a hungry lion), you can take inspiration from Maximus’ bold leadership qualities. His resilience in the face of adversity is a reminder to persevere to achieve your objectives. Meanwhile, Maximus’ ability to build strong relationships and earn the trust of his allies underscores the importance of forging deep connections to build team loyalty.
2 A Few Good Men (1992)
Leadership lesson: ethical decision-making and personal responsibility
“You don’t need to wear a patch on your arm to have honour.”
Lt. Kaffee – A Few Good Men
Following the court-martial of two U.S. Marines charged with the murder of a fellow Marine at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, A Few Good Men is hands-down one of Hollywood’s most epic courtroom dramas. As the high-stakes trial unfolds, multiple leadership lessons reveal themselves, but perhaps none more than the importance of ethical decision making.
A military hierarchy sets the scene for a David v. Goliath-style showdown where characters must choose between following orders or adhering to their moral compass. Should Naval lawyers Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and Lt. Cdr. Galloway (Demi Moore) challenge the military hierarchy and expose the truth behind the murder? Or just accept a plea bargain and avoid rocking the boat?
Through its series of moral battles, A Few Good Men hammers home the importance of personal accountability for those in positions of responsibility. It invokes you to have the confidence to speak truth to power and make choices that align with your values when faced with complex ethical scenarios.
As a leader, you can take inspiration from the movie’s insightful balancing of justice and compassion while knowing that pursuing truth and transparency is always the most honourable move.
3 Fargo (1996)
Leadership lesson: stay humble and respectful to build trust
"Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me; I'm just doing my job here."
Marge Gunderson – Fargo
A heavily pregnant cop may seem like an unlikely leadership heroine, but Fargo’s Marge Gunderson is still able to track down two kidnappers – all while being unfailingly polite. In this darkly humorous Coen brothers classic, Marge (Frances McDormand) is a beacon of humble cordiality amid a cast of cheats, thugs, and rogues.
As Chief of Police in Brainerd, Minnesota, Marge is tasked with investigating roadside homicides that follow desperate car salesman Jerry Lundegaard’s arranged kidnapping of his wife. While navigating a wealth of clueless witnesses and undesirable crooks, Marge steadfastly remains calm, flexible and resourceful in the face of unrelenting challenges.
In all her interactions, Marge never shows anything less than a friendly and empathetic demeanour, which cleverly allows her to establish rapport, gather information and diffuse tense situations. By working diligently and always treating others with respect (even when they mostly don’t deserve it), Marge serves as an incredible example of nurturing trust as a leader, whether male or female.
Her strong work ethic and dedication to her job inspire those around her and set a positive example for others to follow.
4 12 Angry Men (1957)
Leadership lesson: critical thinking and active listening
“This is somebody’s life. We can’t decide in five minutes.”
Juror 8 – 12 Angry Men
This legendary 1950s movie is a masterful drama about the power of positive influence. Set almost entirely within a jury deliberation room, 12 Angry Men revolves around the deliberations of twelve unnamed jurors tasked with determining the guilt or innocence of a young man accused of murder.
Henry Fonda (starring as Juror 8) throws a spanner in the works using his powers of critical thinking, logical reasoning, and active listening. These are all qualities an excellent leader should embody. Each of the other 11 jurors have wildly different personalities, yet they are united by one thing; they all want to vote ‘guilty’ and have a hasty closure to the proceedings.
Over the course of the movie, Juror 8 upholds his integrity and demonstrates moral courage in the face of strong opposition to support the defendant's innocence. He stands up for what he believes is right, despite facing pressure and hostility from others. As the jurors grapple with the evidence presented, Juror 8 encourages them to approach the case from different angles and challenge assumptions.
Standing out for his ability to listen attentively to others and encourage open dialogue, Juror 8 is an exemplary leader who fosters an environment that promotes critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.
5 Erin Brockovich (2000)
Leadership lesson: following the courage of your convictions
“If you follow your heart, if you listen to your gut, and if you extend your hand to help another, not for any agenda, but for the sake of humanity, you are going to find the truth.”
Telling the true story of paralegal Erin Brockovich who took on a major utility company accused of contaminating a small town's water supply, this movie is a brilliant showcase of tenacity and conviction. Although not technically a ‘leader’ in a professional context, single mother Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) was able to bring down the California power company single-handedly.
Brockovich is proof that to succeed and triumph, you must be a good listener and stay true to your moral convictions.
Erin’s empathetic approach helped her build trust and strengthened her leadership, allowing her to effectively advocate for the community's needs and concerns. Then, her courage to challenge the status quo enabled her to question authority and injustice. Erin's unapologetic audacity in challenging a major corporation highlights the importance of leaders who are willing to speak up against wrongdoing and fight for what is right.
Above all, Brockovich’s leadership style can inspire you to be true to yourself, and being unafraid to show vulnerability can become a powerful source of positive influence.
• By embodying the values of strength, resilience and loyalty, Gladiator’s Maximus Decimus Meridius demonstrates strong leadership qualities that help him forge meaningful relationships with his allies.
• By presenting a multitude of moral battles and dilemmas, A Few Good Men underscores the importance of personal accountability for leaders, arming them with the confidence to make choices that align with their values when faced with complex ethical scenarios.
• Through her polite demeanour and kindness, Fargo’s Marge Gunderson illustrates how good leaders can navigate tricky situations and people by staying humble to get the right end result.
• Rather than jumping to hasty or biased conclusions, 12 Angry Men’s Juror 8 demonstrates that active listening, critical thinking and logical reasoning will likely lead to optimal outcomes for all concerned.
• Erin Brockovich shows that by following your convictions with tenacity, a seemingly powerless individual can achieve great things and become a strong leader that inspires others to fight for the right thing.
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