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Michael Maccoby

Michael Maccoby

Michael Maccoby is an anthropologist and psychoanalyst globally recognized as an expert on leadership. He is the author of The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow.

"Miracle" and Others

A number of films have brilliantly illustrated different aspects of leadership. In Twelve O'Clock High (1949), a bomber pilot unit with a soft, caring leader suffers heavy losses and low morale. Gregory Peck, playing General Frank Savage whips the unit into shape by demanding that the pilots follow the rules with no exceptions or excuses. The message is that tough principled discipline can further the common good, especially when a group faces danger or extreme stress. Sometimes a leader who is too kind and forgiving to individuals threatens the common good.

My colleague Richard Margolies and I have used two films in teaching leadership to the US Army Corps of Engineers. In Remember the Titans (2000), Denzel Washington plays Herman Boone, the black football coach who faced racial conflict at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria Virginia. Boone combined tough leadership with the demand that blacks and whites get to know each other and develop respectful relationships. The players learned to appreciate complementary strengths and their resulting collaboration produced a winning team.

Miracle (2004) is the true story of Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 US hockey team that beat a highly favored Soviet team for the gold medal. Brooks surprised his assistant by not picking the players with the best individual skills for the team but carefully selecting players he believed would be better collaborators. Again, this film shows the importance of understanding people and selecting them, not for their individual talents alone, but whether they can collaborate to create great teams. Brooks also demanded that his players work to get themselves in excellent shape.

The three leaders in the films I've cited were essential for the success of their organizations. A different lesson can be learned from one of my favorite films, Citizen Kane (1941).Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane gives us a clinically accurate portrait of a narcissistic visionary who destroys himself because of his unbridled grandiosity. He begins as an inspiring leader dedicated to social service, who deviates in a ruthless pursuit of power and ultimately ends up bitterly alone. It is said that Kane was modeled after William Randolph Hearst but the pattern describes leaders like Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and to some degree Welles himself.

By Michael Maccoby

 |  February 18, 2009; 10:21 AM ET
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