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Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

Todd Henshaw, a professor at Columbia University, is Academic Director of Wharton Executive Education. Previously, he directed the leadership program at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Shawshank's Leader

Prison seems a peculiar place to find leadership, but I believe that Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption provides one of the best examples of leadership, one that I use when I teach young leaders.

While serving a life sentence at Shawshank Prison for a crime he didn't commit, Andy exemplifies three characteristics necessary for effective leadership: He actively shapes situations rather than being defined by them; he serves and develops others; and he dreams of a better future and demonstrates an unwavering determination to make it a reality.

Describing Andy's prison "career" after 20 years of incarceration, Red (Morgan Freeman's character) says, "Some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright." Andy Dufresne never becomes a "prisoner." He shapes situations to convince other inmates that they are not "prisoners," but rather capable human beings in prison.

Andy sacrifices to provide his fellow inmates opportunities to rise above their circumstances. One example of his leadership occurs as the men are tarring the roof of the license plate factory. Red describes the way the men felt on the roof after Andy managed to secure cold beer for them:

We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. Hell, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the lords of all creation. As for Andy -- he spent that break hunkered in the shade, a strange little smile on his face, watching us drink his beer.

Another example of Andy's leadership occurs when he locks himself in the Warden's office to play opera music for the men in the yard. Again, Red translates what this means to the men:

I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.

In each of these cases, Andy causes the men of Shawshank to see themselves in a different way, to be reminded of their capacity and worth as human beings. Through his own sacrifice, Andy restores hope for the men in Shawshank.

Andy further redefines the situation by building the library and securing educational materials for the prison. Men enrolled in correspondence courses and "left the prison" through books, music and magazines. The library became a place to become a student or an author rather than a prisoner. Andy redefined Shawshank as a place where people can grow, develop and reach their potential.

Finally, Andy has a vision of a different future and an unrelenting desire to achieve it. Andy's vision (Zihuatanejo, a small town in Mexico) inspires Red to take risk himself, to push beyond his comfortable definition of life after parole. Red describes the anticipation:

I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.

To achieve this vision, Andy chipped away at his cell wall for 20 years, night after night, and "crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of foulness I can't even imagine."

In Andy Dufresne, we find a man who could have chosen to spend his life as an angry prisoner, yet actively decided to shape his surroundings rather than being shaped by them. He sought opportunities to influence the ways that other men defined themselves and their condition, trying to get them to see themselves as capable human beings with a future rather than prisoners at a dead end.

By Lt. Col. Todd Henshaw (Ret.)

 |  February 17, 2009; 2:36 PM ET
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