9 Key Leadership Lessons You Can Learn from TV & Movies

Successful Leadership
Paramount Pictures

Regardless of if it is the CEO or a junior supervisor, the success and culture of a business is defined from top to bottom by its leadership, and although some people take to responsibility more naturally than others, there are always new and important lessons to teach and to learn.

Luckily, many of these lessons are visible in popular culture, whether they take place in ancient Rome, the New York Stock Exchange or on the Iron Throne of Westeros. So if you’ve suddenly found yourself holding the reins of power at work, or you’re busy preparing yourself for a career in management, pay attention to these famous lessons in how to be a wise leader.

1. Know How to Communicate Effectively

GladiatorDreamWorks Pictures
Strong communication is one of the key components of a successful organisation. Knowing how to communicate effectively will ensure that you can take in important information and act on it and that conversely, you can convey your own instructions to other people.

Example: Maximus Decimus Meridius

The first 20 minutes of Ridley Scott’s Roman epic Gladiator sees Russell Crowe’s respected General deliver a masterclass in effective and composed leadership. This is centred on his ability to clearly communicate his intricate and concise battle instructions to his officers, then motivate them with a rousing speech. He even devises a pre-arranged signal for his cavalry to enter the fray, when traditional communication is unavailable.

Maximus is a perfect example of a leader who can convey his vision and his strategy to others, and achieve an important strategic win for the organisation he represents.


2. Always Lead By Example

Ned StarkHBO

A good manager will always embody the qualities that they would like to see in their team. This means being the first to arrive in the office and the last to leave; it also means never asking an employee to do something that you wouldn’t be prepared to do.

Example: Ned Stark

This is personified by the doomed lord of Winterfell, played by Sean Bean in the popular fantasy epic Game of Thrones. In the very first episode, Ned is bound by law to sentence a deserter to death – but instead of delegating the gruesome task, he carries out the execution himself. As he tells his son Bran, this is because “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword”. Ned is another leader who inspires great loyalty from his followers; his willingness to step forward and perform the difficult tasks himself earns the respect of those around him.

3. Know How to Manage Up, as Well as Down

band of brothersHBO

Many middle managers find themselves as the bridge between executive / higher management and the employees on the shop floor. This means that they have to be just as adept at managing their superiors (managing ‘up’), as well as looking out for their own team. This can be a difficult balancing act, but good leaders know when to push back and when to delegate.

Example: Dick Winters

The real-life Major Winters has written several best-selling books on leadership, but is perhaps best known for his portrayal by Damien Lewis in the wartime miniseries Band of Brothers. With hostilities winding down and his men focused on seeing out the conflict alive, a senior commander sends them on a pointless and dangerous mission; Winters secretly tells his men to instead get some hot food and sleep, and then report back to him that despite their efforts the mission was unsuccessful. He understands that the rewards are not worth the risk, and decides to put the welfare and morale of his men first – expert management from a remarkable man.

4. Ensure You Reward Success

wolf of walstreetParamount Pictures
Motivating employees – especially highly skilled ones – is a tad more sophisticated than taking them to Pizza Express when a project is successful, but the benefits of rewarding workers when they perform well should not be underestimated. Employees always respond when they feel that their efforts are being appreciated, no matter how big or small the gesture.

Example: Jordan Belfort

While we are not condoning you throw lavish gatherings of drug-addled decadence every time your accounts team hits their monthly numbers, nobody can argue that the notorious trader, depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, didn't reward his employees handsomely. The result – as seen throughout the film – is a fiercely loyal workforce who would run through brick walls for their charismatic boss.


5. Empower Your Employees

Al PacinoWarner Bros

Employees that are simply told what to do and how to do it will never grow or develop as professionals; a good leader gives his team members the tools to succeed and then encourages them – with support and feedback – to find their own solution.

Example: Tony D’Amato

In the iconic finale of the 1999 film Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino’s fictional NFL coach – a case study of effective leadership in himself – explains to his beleaguered team that although he can coach them tactics and organise them on the field, essentially it is up to them to get the job done. “I can’t make you do it,” he tells his team. “You gotta look at the guy next to you, and see a guy who will go that inch with you”. By putting the emphasis on his players to find their own solution, D’Amato shows that he has the confidence in them to come through their own challenges.

6. Recruit Well, and Build a Good Team

Rick Grimes the Walkign DeadAMC

Of course, you can be the greatest leader in the world, but you still need a team who are competent and capable of performing the tasks asked of them; this is why recruiting the right people is key. This doesn’t necessarily mean just hiring the person with the best degree or the most experience though – a good leader can spot potential and identify strengths and characteristics that others might not; traits that when combined, can see a team become more than the sum of its parts.

Example: Rick Grimes

Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln on zombie drama The Walking Dead, is an astute leader who has adapted his management style several times over the course of the series. He is a shrewd judge of character and subjects any potential additions to his group to three key questions – an effective interview process that assesses if they will benefit his wider organisation. As a result, the survival odds of his group are strengthened by the unique skillsets that each new member brings to the table.

7. Show Humility and Own Your Mistakes

Christian Bale BatmanWarner Bros

It is a common misconception in management that leaders have to be infallible, but the reality is that along the way you will certainly make mistakes. What matters more is how you react to them. Remember, admitting your mistakes and apologising for them is not weakness – people will be far more willing to forgive you if you take responsibility for them, and just as importantly learn from them.

Example: Bruce Wayne / Batman

Failure – and dealing with failure – is a key theme throughout Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. In the third film, bruised and defeated and left to rot in a prison cell, Wayne is forced to confront and embrace his mistakes; only after demonstrating his humility can he pick himself up and return to the fore wiser and stronger than before. As his father says to him early in the first film: “Why do we fall Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up”.

8. As a Leader, Trust Your Instincts

ragnar vikingsHistory Channel

There are countless management theory manuals, human resources textbooks and self-improvement manuals that you can refer to, but the best leaders learn to trust their gut instincts. Although this comes more easily with knowledge and experience, what will set you apart from others is the ability to see or realise things that they perhaps have not; don’t be afraid to act on what your instincts are telling you.

Example: Ragnar Lothbrok

Viking warrior Ragnar, played by Travis Fimmel in the historical saga Vikings, is the embodiment of a leader who acts upon his instincts in order to achieve his vision. In the first series, he becomes disenchanted with the lack of imagination from his chieftain, Earl Haraldson, who prefers to play things safe and raid eastwards. Convinced there are riches and unexplored lands to the west though, Ragnar defies the Earl’s wishes and ends up raiding England and France, becoming the most famous and powerful king in Scandinavia in the process.

9. Never Stop Learning, as You Don’t Know Everything

sons of anarchy jax teller20th Century Fox

Conceding that you are not omnipotent is one of the most important lessons a leader can learn. Good managers consult with subject matter experts, and even know when to take a step back in certain scenarios; this isn’t a lack of leadership, but a learning and developing experience. Nobody can be an expert in everything, so don’t pretend to be.

Example: Jax Teller

Criminal kingpin Jax, played by Charlie Hunnam in biker drama Sons of Anarchy, takes the reins of power from his stepfather Clay relatively early in the series. Although liked and respected, he is still unproven; as a result he confides and seeks advice from the senior members of the club – especially founding member Bobby. His willingness to listen and learn from the more experienced voices works in his favour, but he is still assertive enough to make his own decisions based on the advice he receives.

As you can see, leadership lessons are not just applicable to management students; they are often learnt on the job continuously, right to the very top. As the last point says – never stop learning, even about the art of leadership itself; this is something the most successful leaders in the world all know and advocate, and you should too.

What do you think? Are there any other key leadership lessons that should be learnt? Let us know in the comments…