I have a background in Hollywood and have often found movies to be a useful tool for extracting leadership insights. It’s often not the movie itself, but rather individual scenes that are really important to me.
For example, in The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith plays a poor man who’s looking after his son and trying to make his way in the world. He’s smart but everything’s against him; he's spent his whole life being told he can't do anything but somehow he’s managed to get an investment banking job even though he’s homeless.
In one scene, his son is playing basketball and says, “One day I want to be an NBA player.” Paraphrasing the scene, his Dad says to him, “Oh you know you're probably not going to be tall enough, what would you like to be if you can't be an NBA player?” As his son slumps and walks away, Smith’s character catches himself and realizes what he's done. He turns back to his little boy and says, “Don't you ever let anybody, including me, tell you what you can't do.” In that one moment he has seen himself in his son.
You can watch the scene below:
For me that's why films are so powerful. In just one moment you get a lesson, it may be something that you already know, but it's delivered so powerfully that you return to it time and time again.
While everyone will respond to different messages, these are five stories that I think have value for every leader:
This film is a very interesting meditation on the sacrifices of leadership. It considers a complex issue from multiple perspectives at the same time, and is stunningly beautiful to boot. Directed by Yimou Zhang, and with Jet Li as the main character, Hero is a stunning martial arts film that follows on from where Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon finished.
Li’s character has gone through his whole life training to kill the Emperor. He’s the only person that has the ability and talent to do it. And in the moment when he's about to kill the Emperor, the Emperor looks at him and basically says, "You're the only person to understand me and what I've had to do." Li’s character then chooses not to kill him.
The story structure is also quite interesting, as the story is told, and then it’s retold, and then retold and then retold and retold. Through each iteration you’re never quite sure what is the truth.
The reason that I find it such an interesting meditation is because there are several characters, including the Emperor, that are taking their own path at great cost to themselves. They are living in a way they think is right. But none of the people they work with understand their sacrifices.
It's really profound in the way it addresses the concept of how hard it is to build something truly big and great, and the costs incurred upon the way.
This is a classic story of greed, but it’s also an interesting musing on power; how it works, what you need to do to get it, and what happens to you once you've got it. I’ve got this movie on DVD and Oliver Stone’s commentary is fascinating as he talks about how he constructed each scene.
The one that stands out for me is the pivotal scene in the film where Charlie Sheen's character has been arrested for insider trading. To prepare for the scene Sheen read a letter his real father had written to him encouraging him to think about the choices he was making in his life. In the letter his father asks him, “Is this really the person you want to be, because you are letting yourself and everybody else around you down.”
This letter put him in the right mindset for the scene. Then when they actually shot the scene they created a cage that sat around him, so he literally walked inside a cage. You can’t actually see the cage in the shot, but this setting, along with the words of his actual father, put him in the right frame of mind for this pivotal scene.
The whole movie is testament to how well Oliver Stone tells stories of power. It’s also a good lesson for anybody in a position of power. Wall Street makes you question yourself. At a minimum, you’ll be left thinking about your morals and ethics in the context of your ambition and sacrifices.
Braveheart's lesser-known sibling, the film Rob Roy essentially boils down to a single line uttered by Liam Neeson, "Honor is a man's gift to himself.” To me, that line is profoundly important.
In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character is an honor bound leader who keeps making his life difficult by choosing to do the right thing from his own moral code. At one point in the film he’s asked, "Why do you do this, why do you make your life so difficult?” He responds by saying "I don't do this for anybody else, honor is a man's gift to himself.”
This one line is so very powerful for me. It guides the way I think about leading, building a company, and working with people. It prompts me as a leader to think about the kind of person I want to be.
This film is so incredibly beautiful. There’s no plot, no narrative, no characters; the film just contemplates how big the world actually is and how small we are in it. It was shot on 70mm and includes both natural and man-made environments that have been compiled together in an hour and half long montage. I believe it took Ron Fricke, the director, and his team a couple of years to complete this film.
When I contemplated leaving Rising Sun Pictures to found Culture Amp, this was the film that I put on to prompt my decision-making process. After 10 or 15 minutes of watching the film I was able to make my decision. Its meditation on the world made me think bigger. It's a very powerful and profound thing to watch.
Actually this isn’t a movie, but The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a book that has contributed to all of the films that I believe a leader should watch. The author, Joseph Campbell, was a comparative mythologist who worked with George Lucas to write the first three Star Wars movies. He was obsessed with the idea of the common myth.
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces he talks about how story structure is common across different cultures, and how that story structure works. Many films have borrowed from his work on storytelling in some way or another.
Regardless of what your business does, if you want to be successful as a leader then you have to be good at telling stories. In this book, Campbell lays out a plan and path to help you learn how to tell those great stories.
Leadership doesn’t operate in isolation. Good leaders draw inspiration, ideas and concepts from a variety of sources. For me the power of storytelling (and in particular movies), provides a rich source of inspiration to draw from in both life and business.
Image source: "Hero Official Trailer Thumbnail" by Mirimax