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George Reed
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George Reed

A retired U.S. Army Colonel, George Reed is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership Studies within the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego.

"Master and Commander" Lessons

The film maker's art can be a powerful and thought provoking tool for highlighting aspects of leadership, and this is especially so in the classroom. Some professors teach entire courses on leadership using contemporary films as the basis for discussion and learning. Movies provide us with a microscope with which we can peer into the human condition.

For one of the best leadership depictions in an action drama I nominate Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Perhaps it seems a bit unusual that a soldier would commend a film about a British warship, but this movie depicts the complexities and responsibilities of leadership and command, as well as dynamics of small groups in a very compelling way. I admit that I am probably influenced by my friend General Walt Ulmer who once suggested that everything we needed to learn about small-unit leadership was captured in the Aubrey/Marturin series of novels written by Patrick O'Brien that provided the basis for this movie.

I also commend the classic film Twelve O'Clock High (1949). My friends at the Center for Leadership Studies, the home of Situational Leadership®, very effectively use this film to depict the necessity of varying one's leadership style based on the needs of followers. Almost every scene has an insight that is useful from a leadership perspective.

Without a doubt, my favorite television mini-series for insights on leadership is the Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg production of Band of Brothers (2001). In this historically based depiction of Easy Company of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division during World War II, we see the formation and maturation of a highly effective organization. I recommend paying particular attention the leadership style of Richard Winters as played by Damian Lewis. It is a story of a remarkable group of men that we recognize as our fathers and grandfathers during a pivotal struggle.

Thus far I have suggested films in the military genre, but as a change of pace I suggest that the nomination for the best biographical film suitable for insights about leadership go to Gandhi (1982). This is a movie about revolutionary change at the societal level, and how one person galvanized an entire continent. Mahatma Gandhi's dedication to social improvement through non-violent activism, and his example of speaking truth with humility continues to serve as a shining beacon for humanity. Ben Kingsley's extraordinary performance in the movie was a tour de force.

By George Reed

 |  February 17, 2009; 11:39 AM ET
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Great choices, George. Good movies and good leadership models at different levels. One of my favorites is Red River (1949) with John Wayne. He has the long-term vision and leadership to build a huge cattle empire, but his tactical leadership style doesn't work on the cattle drive, and he can't adapt until Montgomery Clift and others confront him. Works on several levels.

Posted by: TominGA | February 19, 2009 1:29 PM
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"Master and Commander" was pretty good in it's way, but not nearly as good as reading the 20 novels of the series. It's "Lucky Jack" by the way.

I agree entirely on "Band Of Brothers" and would add "Lonesome Dove" and "Aliens" to the list. The contrasting styles of the Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones characters in "Lonesome Dove" are poles apart- the one gregarious and charming, the other absolutist and remote- yet both are effective leaders. As for "Aliens" think of the scene about 20% into the movie when the space Marines first encounter the alien creatures and the lieutenant just freezes up, prompting the Ripley character to grab the wheel (literally) because she realizes the value of doing something over doing nothing. Leadership inspired by crisis.

Posted by: kguy1 | February 19, 2009 10:32 AM
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Thing I recall most about Master and Commander was the fact that sailors wanted to sail with a commander nicknamed "Lucky Jim". Not Competent Jim, not Confident Jim, not Brilliant or Handsome or Harvard-educated Jim -- Lucky Jim.

There's a lesson in there for all of us.

But the Sharpe TV series probably illustrates line leadership better than anything else. You need to be able to inspire, to motivate, to direct, and if needed, to beat the crap out of them...

Posted by: Samson151 | February 19, 2009 9:35 AM
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