Take your passion
And make it happen
Pictures come alive
You can dance right through your life
What a feeling
― Lyrics to What a Feeling by Irene Cara, featured in Flashdance
Movies have always been a great source of inspiration for me. I mean, who can forget that young woman from Pittsburgh who was a welder by day and dancer by night? Yes, I’m talking about Flashdance, the 1983 film that helped create the popular and somewhat disturbing torn-sweatshirt-and-legwarmers-in-public trend.
When it comes to teams and leaders, movies can be incredibly inspirational in ways that books and articles aren’t. They can also serve up great subject matter for team meetings and small group discussions. In fact, why not spice up your online business meetings this fall with a lively movie review, similar to a book club?
In addition, as we head into the fall and winter months ahead, it’s a good time to start beefing up your own personal must-see movie list. Here are some of my favorite flicks that shine the light on effective leadership styles. Just as in real life, these stories reflect layered individuals who have strengths, weaknesses, and the ability to overcome obstacles.
Tesla (2020), PG-13
Starring Ethan Hawke
To be clear, this movie isn’t an Elon Musk biography. It’s actually a quirky story about Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American inventor, scientist, and physicist whose technological breakthroughs included long-distance power transmission. Described as “a David and Goliath story for the Industrial Age,” the film illustrates what came to be known as the War of Currents between Tesla and Thomas Edison, who ultimately dismissed the young scientist’s ambitions as idealistic and impractical. This rejection led to Tesla striking out on his own. It’s a good underdog story about someone more concerned with using his skills and abilities for good, rather than just earning money or recognition.
Erin Brokovich (2000), R
Starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finney
Julia Roberts took home the Best Actress Oscar for her title role as Erin Brockovich, based on a true story. Following a car accident in which Erin is not at fault, she pleads with her attorney, Ed Masry (Albert Finney) to hire her at his law firm, even though by all accounts she isn’t qualified. Erin stumbles upon some medical records placed in real estate files and convinces Ed to allow her to investigate, where she discovers a cover-up involving contaminated water in a local community which is causing devastating illnesses among its residents. In spite of intense resistance from colleagues, she is determined to fight for justice. She shows compassion, builds trust, and fosters authentic relationships with those suffering the consequences of big business corruption. She is fearless in her convictions and never gives up in seeking the truth.
Coded Bias (2020), unrated
Directed by Shalini Kantayya
You’ll be surprised at what you find out in this documentary that explores what happens when computer scientist and MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini discovers racial and gender bias in AI systems sold by big tech companies. What follows is her journey to sound alarms in the tech world and beyond, uncovering the dangers of unchecked artificial intelligence and its profound impact on individuals, civil rights and democracy. From a leadership perspective, this story shows how individuals can work with others to shed light on injustice, step up to make a difference, and be an agent for change.
42 (2013), PG-13
Starring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford
Legendary manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey (Ford) defies major league baseball’s color barrier in 1946, by signing Jackie Robinson (Boseman) to the team. It was a heroic act, but it also puts both Rickey and Robinson in the firing line of the public, the press and other players. Facing open racism from all sides, Robinson demonstrates true courage and admirable restraint by not reacting in-kind and lets his undeniable talent silence the critics for him. Just like the two main characters, leaders must show courage while challenging the status quo and create change and transformation in unhealthy corporate cultures and work environments.
Apollo 13 (1995), PG
Starring Tom Hanks and Ed Harris
Apollo 13 was the seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program, and the third intended to land on the Moon. The craft was launched from Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank in the service module failed two days into the mission. How the crisis – and the way it was handled – is comparable to crises in the workplace, but hopefully without the thousands of miles in space and life-threatening conditions. It is an excellent example of how leaders must clearly and concisely communicate in order to solve problems. Through teamwork, collaboration, and creative thinking, the characters methodically work their way through each challenge and unexpected obstacle.
Hidden Figures (2016), PG
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe
If you’re looking for something to make you want to stand up with victorious fists in the air, this is your movie. Three leading ladies portray brilliant women at NASA in the ‘60s who serve as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race and galvanized the world. The main storyline focuses on Katherine (Henson), and her ability to excel in a cold and sometimes hostile environment, while also advocating for herself and others in the process. It’s a study in confidence, tact, perseverance, and determination.
Big (1988), PG
Starring Tom Hanks, Robert Loggia and Elizabeth Perkins
This feel-good movie has a special place in my heart, and I’m sure I’m not alone. After a wish turns 12-year-old Josh Baskin into a 30-year-old man (Hanks), he heads off to New York City and gets an entry-level position at MacMillen Toy Company. When Josh happens to encounter the company owner (Loggia), the boss notices his unique enthusiasm and childlike wonder. This leads to a promotion in the toy testing department. Hanks performance reminds us how important it is to stay true to yourself and to be open to new adventures and opportunities. The boss, in turn, doesn’t force the new employee into conformity. Instead, the executive revels in the opportunity to share Josh’s excitement, and not only hear but listen to his very un-corporate opinions. A strong leader appreciates genuine enthusiasm and original ideas, no matter who or where they come from.
The Revenant (2015), R
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy
Okay, bear with me on this one (pun totally intended). Yes, it’s grueling to watch frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) explore the wilderness in 1823. After an unthinkable betrayal by a member of his hunting team (Hardy), and oh, life-threatening injuries, he must use his survival skills to make his way back to civilization. What does this have to do with leadership? Former Apple marketing professional Guy Kawasaki, the author of The Art of the Start 2.0, says the story contains important lessons for leaders about resilience and overcoming adversity. In an article from Fast Company, he says, “No matter what people tell you—or your inner voice tells you—you can beat the 800-pound gorilla. Or, in this case, grizzly bear,” even when it comes at great cost. He thinks that the realities of entrepreneurship are more like the brutal challenges of this movie, rather than the typical fairy-tale of an entrepreneur meeting co-founders and venture capitalists, getting funding, shipping products, collecting revenue, and then going public.
The Intern (2015), PG-13
Starring Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro
There’s a lot of focus these days on generational differences in the workplace, and The Intern is a great example of how those differences can strengthen teams and increase productivity. Jules Ostin (Hathaway) is the boss and founder of an online fashion company. The trendy workspace is filled with young employees and forward-thinking management styles. Things change when Ben Whittaer (De Niro), a 70-year-old widower, walks through the door. Retired and looking for new challenges, he jumps on the opportunity to become a senior intern. Jules is a savvy and effective leader, and soon recognizes the unexpected talents and skills that he brings to the table. Instead of dismissing his age and expertise as old-fashioned or outdated, she taps into his valuable life experience and impeccable work ethic. Accomplished leaders know that the unique qualities of individuals make teams much more productive and successful.
Moneyball (2011), PG-13
Starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill
Another sports-theme flick, this story is based on the book by Michael Lewis, and is about being bold and defying the norm, in spite of those who stand in your way. Billy Beane (Pitt) is the general manager of the struggling Oakland A’s, and one day asks himself a very important question: what if baseball’s conventional wisdom is all wrong? Because his ball club has a limited budget compared to other teams, he must outsmart them and find a way to reinvent the player scouting and signing process. Joining forces with Ivy League graduate Peter Brand (Hill), Beane challenges old-school traditions by recruiting bargain-bin players whom the scouts have labeled as flawed, but have game-winning potential. What’s so impressive about Beane is that, like good leaders, he ignores antiquated processes and creates new and effective business practices. In this case, he joins forces with the young economist and builds his team using statistical analysis and probabilities. Ultimately, the team flourishes and his approach revolutionizes the game of baseball.
Need Help With Getting Inspired?
These movies can be a starting point for great discussions and team activities. But if you’d like to step it up a notch for yourself, teams or leaders in terms of development, give us a call. We can design online or physical distanced gatherings – or even a series of retreats – using programs, techniques and creative tools (like movies) to foster team unity and develop effective leadership skills.