To get discussion started, here are the films that I think offer the best perspectives on effective leadership, listed in alpha order with a few comments:
Comment: Like so many other heroes, William Wallace (Mel Gibson) is at first reluctant to assume the responsibilities of leadership but when he does, it is for a cause far more important than personal revenge: freedom. As for King Edward (Patrick McGoohan), I think his response was appropriate to the threat that the rebellion in Scotland posed. As in the business world, leaders in this and other films I have selected come in all sizes, shapes, flavors, etc.
Fort Apache (1948)
Comment: This is one of my favorite westerns because of John Ford’s development of the contrasts between two quite different leadership styles: those of Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne) and Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda). Thursday is a narcissist who is obsessed with resurrecting his military career with dramatic victories against the “heathens” whereas York is a realist, respects the Apaches, and does all he can to minimize the damage of Thursday’s arrogance. Ultimately, Thursday gives ill-advised orders that York feels obligated to follow. How many toxic leaders are there in the business world? How to cope with them?
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Comment: Robert Bolt’s play and subsequent screenplay are based on sound historical material as Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) attempts to avoid what proves to be an inevitable – and tragic – clash of wills with his king, Henry VIII (Robert Shaw). Scofield portrays a great but profoundly human person who refuses to “render unto Caesar” what he is obligated to give to his God. The greatest business leaders are those who do not (in Dante’s words) “preserve their neutrality when faced with in a moral crisis,” as did Cardinal Woolsey (Orson Welles) and others.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Comment: Brilliantly directed by Stanley Kubrick, this film examines still another reluctant hero, a French officer identified only as Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas), who is given an impossible assignment (i.e. to lead an attack on an impregnable enemy fortress) and then after inevitable failure, is ordered to defend during a military trial three of his men who are innocent victims of the grossly incompetent (if not evil) judgment of the French high command during World War One, notably Gen. Broulard (Adolph Menjou) and Gen. Paul Mireau (George Mcready). How many innocent victims are the result of corrupt corporate leadership?
Pork Chop Hill (1959)
Comment: This film has not received the attention it deserves. It is set during the Korean War and the focus is on Lt. Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck) who, like Sisyphus, is required to go up and then down a hill of questionable strategic importance, again and again (leading troops Sisyphus never had) while under almost constant attack...in this instance, by Red Chinese troops. There are no “villains” in this film, unlike most of the others discussed. Of special interest to me is Clemons’ resemblance to another character also played by Peck, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Both want to do what is right, to obey the given orders or laws, and each cares deeply about those dependent on him. But they are also resolute, wholly committed to certain non-negotiable values. Quiet leaders are often the most effective.
Comment: This is another film brilliantly directed by Stanley Kubrick but of much greater scale than any of the others. The focus is on Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), still another reluctant leader but, once engaged (as is William Wallace) in efforts to achieve freedom for himself and his companions, nearly leads his army to victory against the mighty Roman forces under the command of Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier). Of special interest to me is Charles Laughton’s portrayal of Sempronius Gracchus, a public official who is simultaneously an idealist, a realist, a hedonist, and a manipulator. Once again, leadership in this film comes in all shapes, sizes, flavors, etc. Near the end, each of his followers stands up and proclaims “I am Spartacus!” preferring certain death (by crucifixion) to betraying him and their common cause. Today, how many companies have employees whose loyalty and engagement are comparable?
Tunes of Glory (1960)
Comment: At first, this may seem like an odd choice to those who have not as yet seen the film. However, once they do, I think they will agree that it offers a rigorous and compelling analysis of a subordinate officer who systematically undermines his commanding officer, eventually causing him to suffer a nervous breakdown. Maj. Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) deeply resents that he was not promoted to battalion commander, a position assigned to Lt. Col. Basil Barrow (John Mills) whom Sinclair characterizes as a “toy soldier.” His cunning and timing are worthy of Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear. Meanwhile, Maj. Charles (Charlie) Scott (Dennis Price) observes developments with detachment, in every sense a bemused accomplice. He is clearly someone who preserves his neutrality “when faced with in a moral crisis.”
12 Angry Men (1957)
Comment: Under Sidney Lumet’s skillful direction, this film offers one of the most talented ensembles of actors I have as yet encountered. Almost all of the action (such as it is) occurs in a jury room where twelve men (each identified by number rather than by name) are charged with reaching a verdict. At first, there seems to be a rush to judgment, led by the foreman (Martin Balsam) under pressure from #7 (Jack Warden) and especially from #2 (Lee J. Cobb) However, #8 (Henry Fonda) has some issues and begins to address them, determined to slow the pace of the discussion. All of the jurors are engaged (to varying degrees) and most of them gradually begin to have their own doubts. Often, effective leadership is the result of taking however much time is necessary to ask the right question and then what the right answers are. There are significant differences between speed and haste, between a timely response and a knee-jerk reaction.
Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
Comment: Gregory Peck often said that this is one of his favorite films, together with To Kill a Mockingbird. He portrays General Frank Savage who is assigned by General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell) to replace Savage’s close friend, Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill) as commander of the 918th bomber squadron, based in England, because the squadron has been underperforming on its raids. Directed by Henry King, the film examines what Hemingway once described as “grace under duress” until, eventually, Savage’s emotional involvement results in his burnout as a leader. I am fascinated by the contrasting leadership styles of Savage, Merrill, and Pritchard, each of whom is under almost unbearable pressure to achieve the military objectives. Unlike another subordinate officer, Maj. Charles Scott (Dennis Price), in Tunes of Glory, Major Stovall (Dean Jagger) speaks frankly with Savage as morale deteriorates throughout the squadron but Stovall’s decency and compassion also come into play because he realizes that his commander, Savage, is struggling to cope with the same pressures and concerns that Davenport did. All CEOs should have such support from those who report directly to them.
Comment: This film is based on actual events that occurred during the Boer War when about 4,000 Zulu warriors attacked a British outpost, Rorke's Drift, in 1879. It was defended by 139 Welsh infantrymen under the command of Lt. John Chard (Stanley Baker), an officer in the Royal Engineers who had no previous combat experience. His second-in-command is Lt. Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine) with whom there are strained relations prior to the 12-hour battle. Bromhead is a somewhat pompous and arrogant aristocrat who correctly doubts Chard’s qualifications as a leader. Chard shares those doubts and comes across as a pragmatist without any pretensions who struggles to make the best of a desperate situation. Their backgrounds and personalities could not be more different and yet, once the ferocious attack begins, they rise to the challenge. Frequently in today’s business world, on-the-job training (e.g. developing leadership and management skills when having to assume responsibility) is the only option.