5 Leadership Lessons We Learned From the Movies… All Wrong

6 min read
Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels

Source: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels

Who are your models of leadership? If you were so lucky as to meet great leaders in real life, they may be a former inspiring teacher, maybe a super-boss. But, even then, at least some of your ideas about great leadership are likely to come from the silver screen. Witness the deluge of articles and social media posts that synthesize leadership wisdom from the movies.

Finding valuable leadership lessons in popular films is facilitated by the elasticity of leadership definitions in our minds. “Leadership” seems to mean anything from “behaving in a way that inspires me” to “learning deep lessons about self.” But, if we stick to a textbook definition of leadership, “influencing others to achieve a common goal” (Northhouse, 2019), Hollywood has often given us the wrong idea about it.

Here are five misconceptions about leadership that we have acquired from our favorite movies:

1. “Be a leader, not a manager.”

Movies have taught us that managers are inferior beings obsessed with mundane tasks. Think of “The Office,” “Office Space” (“Did you fill in your TPE report?”), or “Horrible Bosses.” By contrast, the evolved beings known as leaders breathe a rarified air made of vision, inspiration, and brilliant big-picture thinking. This wasn’t always the case. When the character of Lucius Fox, in “Batman,” was created in 1979, “management” was not yet a dirty word among screenwriters. Lucius, the CEO to Wayne Enterprises, Batman’s worldly affairs, was an extremely efficient manager who also had great character. Maybe tellingly, he does not appear in the latest Batman movie.

The leader-manager dichotomy has become entrenched in people’s minds, including those training for managerial careers. This is a dangerous view: Without solid operational processes, an organization that only has inspiring, “big picture” leaders will collapse like a failed soufflé. At any rate, in such circumstances, leaders cannot stay inspiring for long: In my own work experience, I have seen would-be visionary leaders who lost the respect of their people because they couldn’t be bothered to pull up their sleeves and figure out an efficient allocation of work.

2. True leaders never really wanted to lead in the first place.

They reluctantly took the helm because others needed them to (“The Hunger Games,” “Braveheart,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Matrix”). This misconception is best summarized in the film “The Two Popes,” when a cardinal quotes from Plato: “the most important qualification for being a leader is not wanting to be a leader.” As a matter of fact, research shows that the single biggest predictor of leadership emergence (ahead of intelligence or character) is precisely the motivation to lead (Chan & Drasgow, 2001). It is not helpful if, while most leaders assume the mantle because they really want it, this also makes them second-guess themselves as not “worthy,” since they were not forced into leadership by a crisis or by the vote of the people. Leaders who are kinder to themselves are kinder to others. It is OK to want to lead, to take the leadership responsibility, and to make one’s mistakes and learn one’s lessons along the way.

3. Humility and empathy are all that’s needed to make a leader.

Ted Lasso shows up as the manager of an English football club, a game he knows implausibly little about. Although he has little to no power in his new role, through a combination of humility and warm-heartedness, he turns the team into a real team and generally makes everybody love everybody. The series (at least Season 1) is delightful and a useful reminder to leaders everywhere to reallocate some effort away from their many priorities into caring and empathy. It would also be a terrible model for anyone trying to lead exclusively by the same recipe.

Leadership is impossible in the absence of power. Yes, power is not necessarily expertise- or position-based; it can also be personal (what is known as “referent power”), coming for example from charisma or exceptional intelligence. But expressing these qualities powerfully requires oodles of self-confidence, and self-confidence is nurtured by positive social feedback. In other words, even personal power is born out of social power, and social power requires some fighting for. Leaders need to understand how power operates, how they can acquire it, and how they can use it in ways that are effective, yet not Machiavellian. Research shows that humble leadership (a much-extolled leadership style in recent years) is ineffective when leaders are low in power (Wang, Owens, Li, & Shi, 2018).

4. If you have a great idea, leadership means pushing it through despite resistance; the results will prove you right.

This formula is bound to work in movies because we love seeing the protagonist succeed against all odds and despite everyone else’s opinion. For example, in “Moneyball,” the protagonist pushes his new way of selecting and managing a professional baseball team, with no effort whatsoever to convince, cajole, or influence his management and recruitment team. Do this as a protagonist in the film of your real leadership life (trying to introduce a big change without giving any consideration to such change management tenets as selling the idea, finding early adopters, and making powerful alliances) and your big idea will be dead before the opening credits stop rolling.

5. I expect my leader to read my thoughts and know what is good for me better than myself.

“Dead Poets’ Society,” “Any Given Sunday,” “Remember the Titans,” “Coach Carter”: Some of these films usually come to mind when thinking of inspiring leadership. They are beautiful movies, and many leadership educators bring them up in the classroom. But, on closer consideration, the leadership that the best teachers or coaches wield so masterfully (based on a teacher-student dynamic) is fundamentally different from the leadership that the best bosses can demonstrate at work, which should be based on an adult-adult relationship. Sometimes (especially if we idolize our bosses, something that research calls “the romance of leadership”) we may come to expect them to know everything that concerns us at work, including what is best for us at any moment, and we abdicate our responsibility for presenting and promoting ourselves, for our choices, and for our own development.

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These misconceptions about leadership have important consequences for young people’s deciding whether they have what it takes to pursue leadership; as a research study found (Aycan & Shelia, 2019), “worries about leadership” are increasingly showing up as a deterrent. They have consequences for people’s expectations from their leaders and for leaders’ expectations from themselves. Granted, movies have a powerful influence on our lives, far beyond the confines of our understanding of leadership. At the end of the day, most good movies ask the age-old question: “How should one live? What is a life well lived?” and do their best to offer a sliver of the answer. The key is to keep a little critical thinking light on, at all times, and, then, enjoy the show.

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