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Leadership and Coaching Principles From the Big Screen

Many inspirational stories have been told through the use of film and video. Through these stories, we can learn lessons of leadership that are applicable to executive coaching. Inspired by Paul Martin’s editorial on the podcast Saskatchewan Matters, here are a few valuable lessons that can be learned from popular films.

Jerry Maguire, a successful sports agent faces a moral dilemma and is ultimately fired from his agency. As a result, Jerry decides to become an independent sports agent. However, from his previous agency, only one of his athletes stayed with him, Rod Tidwell. A key moment from this film is when Jerry, after being frustrated with Rod’s pride and ego, tells Rod, “Help me help you!” Jerry needs Rod’s effort and cooperation in order to help him succeed. In the same way, executive coaches can only help those who are dedicated to learning, changing, and growing. If an individual refuses to learn and discuss their challenges, executive coaching is of no benefit to them regardless of the skill of the executive coach. Before learning and growth can take place, the helper, or executive coach, must be accepted by the one who needs help (IMDB, n.d.).

As Donkey and Shrek start their conquest to save a princess, Donkey makes broad assumptions about Shrek’s abilities based on his own understanding of Ogres. Shrek rejects these assumptions and states that “Ogres are like onions… onions have layers, Ogres have layers!” Shrek’s point brings forth an interesting idea for leaders and executive coaches alike: what if your assumptions are wrong? What if there is something more behind an individual's actions or behavior?

Great leaders listen to their teams and search for understanding when challenges and failures arise. For example, a team member’s reduced productivity might be explained by a challenge in their personal life or health. A skillful leader would acknowledge the potential layers of this scenario and ask questions that would uncover the root cause. This scene also points to unconscious bias and the dangers of misunderstanding those around you because of it. So next time you find yourself facing a decision or making an assumption, ask yourself: have you considered the layers that might lie behind it?

In Lord of the Rings, there is a scene in which Frodo Baggins says, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened…” and Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times… All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”

This scene in the Lord of the Rings reminds viewers that although we do not wish for hardships, we cannot avoid them and that we must make decisions in the face of such challenges. In seasons of economic downturn, business leaders, executives, and the majority of society can feel disheartened and upset with their circumstances. In such cases, executive coaches are given the opportunity to encourage, ask questions, and support their clients’ decision-making process. They bring clarity to those they coach and encourage them to move forward towards their goals with intentional thought, discussion, and reflection.

For those in leadership positions, Gandalf’s statement rings true as a reminder to never be stagnant, even in seasons of difficulty. Always stay green, growing, and adapting to the environment around you and your team. The lack of decision and leadership is a decision to be stagnant. Or in the words of Roman philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, “More is lost by indecision than wrong decision. Indecision is the thief of opportunity. It will steal you blind.”

Dumbledore’s quote in Harry Potter, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it” is both straightforward and powerful. For executive coaches, it reinforces the importance of being careful about the words used, questions asked, and the occasional guidance that is given. Are your words encouraging? Do you encourage your clients with truth by using facts or industry insights? For leaders, it serves as a reminder of how the words we use affect team members. Consider this insight from a 2020 classroom research study… This study supports the idea that verbal praise from teachers can positively influence the amount of on-task behavior of students (Caldarella et al., 2020). Imagine if this was applied to the workplace? Do your words encourage growth, learning, and excellence?

Hacksaw Ridge covers the story of WWII American Army Medic, Desmond T. Doss, who refused to kill others, saved 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa, and was the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot (Kelly, 2021 & IMDB, n.d.).

Throughout Desmond’s life, he showed empathy and compassion for others. During his time in the army, he refused to pick up a gun because of his religious beliefs. Instead, he focused on saving the lives of those around him. There are many lessons that can be learned from Desmond’s courageous leadership and sacrifice for others. In the film Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond states “I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe.” This is a powerful statement that reminds us of the importance of having our “why” our cause and reason for doing what we do.

In this film, Captain Jack Glover tells Desmond “Most of these men don’t believe the same way you do, but they believe so much in how much you believe.” Sometimes executives and business leaders do not believe in themselves or their own abilities. This can also happen to team members or employees. This quote from Captain Glover about Desmond’s commitment to his purpose reminds both leaders and executive coaches of the importance of building trust, believing in others’ expertise, and encouraging others to do their best.

The Pursuit of Happyness is the story of a struggling salesman, Chris Gardner, who faced financial difficulties and homelessness while caring for his son. He acquires a stockbroker internship position at Dean Witter and is seen carrying a suitcase to work due to his homelessness. He is one of the 20 applicants fighting for 1 available position. Through his struggles, he displays a great amount of determination and is given the job at Dean Witter.

With this new job, he is able to create a better life for himself and his son. Chris’ determination and resiliency are a great example to executive coaches and leaders alike. Both can use this example when coaching and leading others towards success. They can also use it as their own source of inspiration. The road to certification for executive coaches can be long and require extensive time commitments. Having resilience like Chris Gardner can help aspiring executive coaches and those wishing to gain more certifications. Leaders can display resiliency like Chris Gardner in the face of economic hardship. An article from the International Institute for Management Development explains that “resilience is a crucial characteristic of high-performing leaders” (Kohlrieser, Orlick, & Perrinjaquet, n.d.). Both executive coaches and leaders can learn from the resiliency of Chris Gardner and the benefits of being resilient in hard times (IMDB, n.d.).

Apollo 13 is the story of NASA’s space mission, Apollo 13. During this mission, teams both on the space shuttle and on the ground must tackle challenges due to faulty oxygen systems. A famous line from this film is “failure is not an option.” As the ground control center works to find a solution for the reduced oxygen levels, Gene Kranz, the Flight Director, encourages his team to find a solution in any way possible. He tells them “failure is not an option” and pushes them to find a solution that will save the lives of his crew (Martin & Gold, 2021).

Leaders and executive coaches can learn from Gene’s leadership and determination toward goal achievement. While failure is a valuable teacher, it is important for individuals to work hard to avoid failure while they can (IMDB, n.d.). Gene also tells his team “Let’s work the problem people, let’s not make things worse by guessing.” This is an important lesson for executive coaches and leaders. According to the ICF core competencies, a component of the “coaching mindset is curiosity.” By remaining curious and asking questions, executive coaches can further “work the problem” with their clients and avoid “guessing” (ICF, n.d.). For leaders, this serves as an encouragement to make decisions with the use of hard data and insights, not by guessing.

The Black Panther is a Marvel superhero who leads the fictional African country of Wakanda. In leading his country and facing a variety of challenges, T’Challa, The Black Panther, has several key moments of leadership. At one point he says, “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.” Executive coaches who lead peer executive groups help business leaders build bridges of knowledge and insight within peer groups. Instead of harboring and hoarding knowledge and experience, executive coaches encourage others to share and gain more knowledge from others.

Shuri, a fellow leader of Wakanda, also provides valuable leadership insight. Shuri tells T’Challa, “How many times do I have to teach you: just because something works doesn't mean it can't be improved." As executive coaches, we must always be aware of new insight and knowledge to improve our coaching practice. As leaders, we must always be aware of new methods of leadership and the changing needs of our teams (Roach et al., 2021).

In the film, We Were Soldier, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore is a great example of leadership. He was dedicated to training his troops and being the last man off the battlefield during the Vietnam War. Before heading to battle he shares an encouraging and powerful message to his troops:

“Look around you, in the 7th Cavalry, we got a Captain from the Ukraine, another from Puerto Rico, we got Japanese, Chinese, Blacks, Hispanics, Cherokee Indian, Jews and Gentiles, all American. Now here in the States, some men in this unit may experience discrimination because of race or creed, but for you and me now, all that is gone. We're moving into the valley of the shadow of death, where you will watch the back of the man next to you, as he will watch yours, and you won't care what color he is or by what name he calls God. Let us understand the situation we're goin' into battle against a tough and determined enemy. I can't promise you that I will bring you all home alive, but this I swear: When we go into battle, I will be the first one to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead, or alive, we all come home together. So help me God.” - Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore

At the end of the movie, we see that Moore remained on the battlefield and was the last of his troops to leave. Moore’s leadership is a great example of the self-sacrifice and determination of a leader (Martin & Gold, 2021).


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