This is part of a series of articles that combine two great passions of mine: leadership and movies. The series seeks to explore leadership through the lens of selected movies. Today we are looking at the 1995 movie Braveheart directed by Mel Gibson and featuring Mel Gibson as William Wallace and Patrick McGoohan as King Edward I (“Longshanks”). I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis (so as not to spoil a great movie).
The film, set in 13th Century Scotland, is an account of the life and death of William Wallace and the part he played in the Scottish uprising against the English and independence. The movie explores how Wallace, a commoner who wanted only to live a quiet family life, unites the fractious and self-serving clans and raises and leads a campaign against the English. Key historical events include the decisive victory against the English at Stirling, the sacking of York, Wallace’s betrayal at the hand of Robert the Bruce and the Scottish nobles at Falkirk and his trial and public execution in London. The movie closes with a snapshot of his legacy of how Robert the Bruce went on to unite Scotland and end English occupancy. The movie deals extensively with Wallace’s visionary leadership style.
The term visionary leader originates from Daniel Goleman et. al who set out six leadership styles: four that foster resonance (visionary, coaching, affiliative and democratic styles) and two that foster dissonance (pacesetting and commanding style). Visionary leadership is characterised as a style that “moves people toward shared dreams” and is most effective when a “clear direction is needed”. Visionary leaders set out where the organisation is heading, they create the big picture and communicate it “so that the functions in the organisation can see where their contribution fits in”. We can learn a lot about visionary leadership from watching the movie. Here are three things that Wallace does that marks him out as a visionary leader:
1. He has a strong compelling vision – a free and independent Scotland. This vision is compelling enough to create a permanent legacy of change for the sons and daughters of Scotland. What makes the vision compelling is the straightforward either/or choice: freedom or slavery.
2. He uses his early experiences, defining moments and core values to help define, shape and inform his vision The film portrays two early defining moments: (i) the death of his father which came about through the treachery of King Edward I and the ineptitude of the Scottish noblemen; (ii) the death of his wife and childhood sweetheart at the hands of a local aristocrat. These early defining moments haunt him in dreams throughout his life and help shape his core values of loyalty, family and freedom. His vision of a free independent Scotland and his dogged determination to achieve his vision is self-consciously stoked by his defining moments and values.
3. He unites people behind the vision. He does this by: (i) leading from the front and setting an example (Robert the Bruce says of him “he fights with passion and he inspires”); (ii) communicating the vision in very clear and personal terms (at the battle of Stirling he address the cynical troops using straight-forward and personal language “fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live at least a while and dying in your beds many years from now would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom”); (iii) staking his own reputation and life to deliver on the vision; (iv) setting out clear strategic ideas on how to deliver on the vision; (v) dealing directly with the factions opposing the vision (such as the way he dealt with the clans who do “nothing but talk”).
Braveheart conveys some core ideas on the nature of visionary leadership in the workplace. To be an effective visionary leader you need to have:
– a core vision and purpose
– self-awareness around what shaped that vision (including defining moments and values)
– an ability to unite people (both their hearts and mind) behind the core vision through demonstrating self-commitment, strategizing/communicating/personalising the vision and dealing with defectors.
The movie also teaches us some common pitfalls that visionary leaders can fall into around becoming too personally/emotionally attached to your work leading to burnout and ignoring the advice of your team (as was the case with Wallace who ignored the warnings not to broker any more deals with Robert the Bruce).
Look out for further articles in this series.
by Ric Kelly PhD.
I’ve met numerous leaders in my career. Some did a better job than others at actually leading. But few were what I would call “inspirational leaders.”
By inspirational, I simply that they had the ability to motivate others to accomplish something significant, perhaps even heroic. William Wallace was such a man.
Remember his speech in BraveHeart before the battle of Stirling Bridge. He said,
I am William Wallace. And I see a whole army of my countrymen, here in defiance of tyranny! You have come to fight as free men. And free man you are! What will you do without freedom? Will you fight?”
A veteran shouts, “Fight? Against that? No, we will run; and we will live.”
Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live … at least for a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take … our freedom!”
The men are inspired and Wallace leads them into battle. They defeat the British, who were more numerous and better equipped.
Later on in the movie, Robert the Bruce has a discussion about leadership with his father. He understands that there is a fundamental difference between having a leadership title and actually being an inspirational leader.
Robert the Bruce: “Lands, titles, men, power … nothing.”
Robert’s father: “Nothing?”
Robert the Bruce: “I have nothing. Men fight for me because if they do not, I throw them off my land and I starve their wives and children. Those men who bled the ground red at Falkirk fought for William Wallace. He fights for something that I never had. And I took it from him, when I betrayed him. I saw it in his face on the battlefield and it’s tearing me apart.”
Robert’s Father: “All men betray. All lose heart.”
Robert the Bruce: “I don’t want to lose heart. I want to believe as he does.”
Fortunately, in real life, Robert found his heart and became a great leader. He led the Scots against the English in the First War of Scottish Independence and eventually defeated King Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
What does this have to do with business? Everything.
If you are going to accomplish something significant, you need help. You can’t do it alone. You can’t pay your people enough to give you their hearts. Nor can you frighten them into it. Instead, you and I must become inspirational leaders—leaders who can inspire others to give their best efforts for the sake of a great cause.
In my experience, inspirational leaders share four characteristics in common.
- Inspirational leaders set the pace. One of the great examples of this is depicted in the movie We Were Soldiers, directed by Ronald Wallace and starring Mel Gibson as Lt. Col. Hal Moore. Prior to leaving for service in Vietnam, Moore delivers a moving speech to his troops. He says,
I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home alive, but this I swear: 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.”
Moore then literally fulfills this promise. He is the first one to step into battle and the last one to leave. This is real leadership.
True leaders don’t ask their people to do anything they are unwilling to do. They lead by example. They model the behavior they want others to manifest.
- Inspirational leaders believe in the future. They are able to paint a vivid picture of a different and better reality. They make it concrete, so people can see it, touch it, smell it, and taste it. They give people hope that things can be better, and they have a plan for making it so.Regardless of what you think of his politics, Ronald Reagan was a master at this. He offered hope. In the late 1970s, as a result of high inflation and high interest rates, Americans were discouraged. Many were cynical. Some were saying that things couldn’t get better—this was simply the new reality and Americans needed to get used to it.
Reagan painted a different picture. He didn’t accept the status quo. He offered hope for “Morning in America,” a time of new beginnings. People bought into his vision, because they liked where he was going.
- Inspirational leaders connect people to the larger story. People want to know that their lives have meaning. They want to know that they are more than a cog in a machine. They want to know that their work matters.True leaders connect them to a larger story—something big and significant. Something epic. John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heartand numerous other bestsellers, is a genius at this.
The ultimate story is, of course, God’s story. And, finding our place in His story is incredibly motivating. As leaders, our job is to help people understand that what they do, not only matters in this life, but in the life to come. It will “echo into eternity.”
- Inspirational leaders help people believe in themselves. We all get bumped and bruised as we go through life. Circumstances constantly conspire to undermine our esteem. It’s easy to lose heart—to begin doubting our ability to handle the challenges we face.That’s why it is so refreshing to meet someone who believes in us and is willing to verbalize it. It gives us confidence that maybe we do have what it takes.
Great leaders—like great parents—help people believe in themselves. They look for opportunities to catch people doing something right. They focus on their people’s strengths, not their weaknesses. And, they have a knack for offering encouragement at strategic moments—when the team needs it.
Not everyone is in a position of leadership. But, as Robert the Bruce pointed out to his father, leadership is influence. And that is something all of us have.
Question: Are you an inspirational leader? What is the most important thing you can do today to become one?
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