Learning from movies; learning from others
Movies offer us opportunities to observe leaders in action and reflect on tough decisions and risky actions from a safe distance. We can learn from bad leaders what not to do (mistakes we want to avoid). And great leaders can provide a model for action and inspire us to dig deeper and reach higher. Seeing great leaders in action can supply us with new language and tools that can help us take our leadership practices up to the next level. Either way, whether we are seeing good examples or bad, movies can provide us opportunities for reflection—chances for us to think about what we want, when we are at our best, and what we value most.
While the possibilities are endless, I have chosen a dozen or so movies to write blogs on—movies that I continue to learn from and enjoy watching as movies.
Enjoy these blogs in private contemplation or invite some friends or colleagues to join you in this journey. One of the blogs in this series will provide some guidance on facilitating discussion around these movies, that is, using these movies for leadership development on your team or across your organization.
In this first blog in my series on leadership in movies, I want to say a few words about learning about leadership by observing the actions of others.
Imitation versus Finding Your Own Voice
Human beings learn from others. Even Aristotle, more than 2300 years ago, pointed out the importance of learning from imitation. Nevertheless, leaders, like artists, are not merely imitators. Leaders are expected to make decisions, create new solutions, and chart new paths through the landmines of the competitive landscape…
We need to learn from others, and we also have to be original. When we learn from others (movies, books, and real life leaders), it is crucial to find a balance between imitation and charting our own path, and do this in a way that enables us to remain true to ourselves.
Here is a personal story about imitating other leaders. In my first executive position, I worked for a firm in which two people clearly stood out as the best leaders in the organization. They both had the exact same personality style: they were both driven, “A” type, charismatic, command and control type leaders, and perhaps a little on the macho side. They were classic leaders; the kind you see all the time in movies; and they did it well: great results, loyal following, admired and imitated by all.
Well I found out immediately that imitating their behavior did not work for me. My personality style is so different from theirs that when I imitated them I simply looked stupid—like a pretender, a charlatan, a faker. It was very embarrassing for everyone. It is pretty difficult to have credibility when people see you as an imposter. Credibility is very important for leaders. And of course, there is not a lot of originality, integrity, or authenticity in being a poser.
I learned from this that I had to find my own voice as a leader, and that imitation only works when it is authentic, that is, aligned with who I am and what works for me. I had to discover and acknowledge what makes me unique, what makes me tick, what works for me—and give myself some space to be different, while also respecting organizational culture, of course. As soon as I figured this out, I was able to learn from those two “A Type” leaders—I just had to do it my own way. This discovery freed me up to learn from anybody and everybody: I could take and customize almost any lesson in leadership and adapt it for my own purposes, on my own terms. Since then I have actively searched for leadership lessons from great leaders in business, politics, science, the military, sports, and even the arts—and to figure out practical applications for myself and other business leaders.
Think about it: if Gandhi was simply imitating General Patton, he would not have been his best as a leader; he would not have been nearly as successful. And vice versa—just imagine General Patton imitating Gandhi—I can’t imagine that working out so well. Unless, that is, Patton already had a strong sense of self and self-understanding before trying to learn from Gandhi, in which case, the potential for learning might have been almost limitless.
You will be at your best as a leader, and be able to learn from a broader range of ideas and examples if you can identify and affirm what makes you unique and find your own voice as a leader.
I encourage you to keep this issue of “finding your own voice” in mind while reading this series of blogs about leadership in movies…and of course, also in your daily work as a leader.