I don't know about you, but I get my biggest and most concentrated dose of leadership lessons comes from going to the movies. And this year's movie crop has been nothing short of a bonanza. Oscar gave the nod to so many models of heroic leadership to pick from and adapt for our own use: the iconic American president with the upright gait and unforgettable face reproduced on monuments, mountains and currencies; the shadowy operative who favors anonymity and weaves a fabric of followers stretching from Langley, VA, through Hollywood, CA to Teheran, Iran, and returns to obscurity once the job is done; the boy on a boat with a single follower that can do little else but eat him. They all led. They engineered their followership to pull off seemingly impossible tasks. One led from the front, united a divided nation, fought a bloody war and was not averse to being just a little less upright to work with many stakeholders to get historic legislation passed. Another was an innovative entrepreneur, and harnessed resources that he brought together through intransigence, persistence and creativity. The third, literally, had a tiger by the tail; here was a lesson in leadership in extreme crisis with an extremely hostile constituency.
What I like about the movies is that the leadership biographies I get from them are free of moral, ethical or political clutter. Even the human frailties are brought to us by master storytellers, a Spielberg, an Affleck, an Ang Lee. In the digitally (or otherwise) enhanced narrative, even the foibles and faults contribute towards the endgame as the leader gets to goal. Unfortunately, outside the movie-house, we have to contend with the most spectacular of our leaders who inexplicably fail us in spectacular ways. We are left with no endgame narrative other than a messy mix of disappointment, shock and frustration.
The real world has not been kind to the leadership narrative. There appears to be a simultaneous crisis of political leadership around the democratic world. Businesses from High Finance to Big Oil appear to be led by managers either devoid of courage or caught with hands in the cookie jar with frightening regularity. Elsewhere, we read of errant sports superstars, or men of the cloth who purportedly speak to God but prey on their flock, or generals who hold firm on the battlefront and fall prey to temptation on the home front. As a professor, this is a period filled with many hazards. Our students crave lessons on leadership; but we seem to have got to a point where it is not safe to write an inspiring leadership biography or a teachable case study anymore until the subject is well in the past, or in the case of the boy with the tiger, a figment of magical realism.
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