7 cult movie classic leaders in crisis

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Hollywood’s best writers and directors know stirring and inspiring leadership means big bucks at the Box Office.

Academy Award-winning films, like Braveheart and Twelve O’Clock High, spoil us with an abundance of crisis leadership examples.

But great leadership examples don’t exclusively exist in war-time or historical epics.

Key points

  • Leaders are defined by how they handle a crisis
  • Crisis leadership skills help you to deal with unexpected, terrible events. Where better to see it in action than at the movies?
  • Bravery, vision, determination and perseverance are just some of the qualities writers weave into their film heroes and leaders

Leaders in cult movie classics

Inspiring qualities crop up in the most unlikely of movies, sometimes from within the meekest and most directionless character.

“All our favourite leaders are born out of crisis situations,” explains founder of the Bristol Bad Film Club and author of Born to Be Bad, Timon Singh.

It doesn’t matter what the situation is, you’re just happy to watch them endure and will them to survive.

Which films should you watch to find these unexpected crisis leaders? Any movie that has a disaster or challenge to overcome.

“Just look at Ellie Satler and Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. The gender roles are reversed – Alan looks after the kids and Ellie powers up generators and fights raptors,” says Timon.

“But most post-apocalyptic films are focused around a figure of innate goodness and morals in a terrible world, like Denzel Washington as Eli, in The Book of Eli.

Whichever genre you’re diving into, there’s usually a leader, struggling with the plot built around them, or facing a plot that will coax out their hidden leadership skills and qualities.

Let’s look at great leadership in a crisis and where to find it in cult movie classics.

1. President Thomas J Whitmore in Independence Day

Timon name-checked President Thomas J Whitmore as an unexpected leader and one, with hindsight, who possessed an unlikely blend of leadership qualities.

“It’s a silly film,” said Ti. “You have Jeff Goldblum as a scientist who the President actually listens to, AND a President that has to make hard (and wrong) choices.

“But, he realises that to save the day, he has to unify the world for a counter-attack with morse code, make a great speech and get in a fighter jet himself to get the job done.

“Watching it now, it’s almost impossible to believe that a President can be that competent, empathetic and likeable.”

Using your leadership skills to unite the people around you is a tactic used by New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.

Whitmore is recognised as one of the greatest fictional leaders, ever. And it might be because he’s so good at communicating his vision – he inspires and moves people, giving them hope in a crisis.

Bill Pullman (President whatever) in Independence Day. Simply the best speech that spurs his troops on to victory. Single-handedly pulling a man out of the grip of alcoholism who goes onto sacrifice himself for the good of mankind. Can’t beat it.

— Calum (@calum326) October 2, 2020


2. Admiral Holdo in Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi

Why aren’t we touting Rey, Laya or Luke Skywalker’s handling of the Sith crisis?

Entertainment journalist and screenjolt founder, Ryan Leston, thinks Admiral Holdo’s failing leadership qualities are more noteworthy. She stays true to her vision but tramples on the people around her in the process.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an interesting one for leadership,” he said.

“Admiral Holdo puts the survival of the Resistance over herself. But by not listening to her team in the first place, morale breaks down to the point of a coup.

“If she listened to her team it could have been avoided!”

Holdo’s story could be lifted into the real world. Effective listening is a leadership trait for any leader, on Alderaan or otherwise.

But putting a pause on leading in order to listen is something you have to rehearse. It shows self-awareness, empathy, humility and integrity. It can even inspire trust.

3. Sherman “Preacher” Dudley in Deep Blue Sea

LL Cool J plays chef and the deuteragonist, Preacher, working on a submarine research facility in the 1999 blockbuster, Deep Blue Sea.

The loose plot is that three DNA-altered sharks turn against researchers who are trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and the plot follows the crew as they try to escape peril.

What’s the story?

Preacher is attacked by all three sharks.

He triumphs over the first by igniting it using his lighter and gas from an oven he’d been trapped in while the water level slowly creeps up in his shark-infested kitchen. Although, it eats his pet bird in the process.

He fairs less well when facing the second shark  – he’s attacked, dragged through the water and injured, but manages to escape, using a crucifix to blind the shark.

He’s lost his rag by the time the third shark crosses his path – he harpoons it (and accidentally harpoon’s his colleague’s leg in the process), connects the harpoon to a car battery and electrocutes it.

Why is Preacher an unlikely leader?

Although Preacher takes centre stage, Samuel L Jackson’s character makes an initial play for the central leadership figure.

He attempts to unite the increasingly fractured team by reminding them what happens when they don’t work together – lives are at stake, after all. “We’re going to find a way to pull together and get out of here!” he says before a shark leaps up and eats him alive.

Preacher was destined for a similarly grizzly fate. Although the writers intended to kill him off, test audiences loved his character so much, they let him live.

But they kept Preacher’s sense of foreboding alive. He has no expectation of making it through to the end of the movie, telling the audience: “Oh, I’m done!” and yet he rallies against adversity.

Perhaps that’s why he’s so inspiring in a crisis – he’s a realist who exceeds his own expectations, he’s clumsy but bumbles through. Although he’s fed up, he never gives up and has the attitude of a survivalist. Not forgetting he’s highly practical and hands-on!

4. Wayne in Wayne’s World 2

In Wayne’s World 2, Wayne and Garth have a vision – to put on a rock gig called ‘Waynestock’. Like Admiral Holdo, Wayne must lead his friends and roadies through an uncertain time.

The potholes are many – the local radio station won’t promote the gig and they fear the bands won’t show up.

The characters surrounding Wayne tell him to give up, but they still look to him for the vision and to make sense of the confusing situation. Will the show go on, or will it crash and burn?

Wayne in Waynes World 2 sticks with his idea for Waynestock despite adversity and everything saying it would fail and his team around him saying he should give in…..But I guess as a leader he didn’t listen to his team.

never thought id reference Waynes World for leadership 😂

— Brandon Egley (@BrandonEgley) October 2, 2020


Why is Wayne a surprisingly good leader in a crisis?

Notably, Wayne’s subconscious knows he needs help and forces him to seek the expertise of a world-leading mentor in the form of Doors front-man, Jim Morrison. He guides Wayne’s decisions and gives him a dose of realism as the disastrous Waynestock comes to life.

Wayne also keeps a firm hold of the dream and in doing so, offers reassurance, inspires and encourages everyone to stick together as the plan unfolds.

Every leader knows how to delegate – enter Del Preston, Wayne’s trusted tour manager to train the roadies and organise the front and backstage subteams.

But, Wayne knows how to roll up his sleeves to do the small jobs, booking the venue, making the signs, as well as leading critical band negotiations. He shows he’s passionate about the task at hand and determined to make it a reality. Sometimes your team needs to see your passion and conviction to invest – if nothing else, Wayne is a passionate leader.

5. Shadow in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey

This 1993 classic follows three pets as they take a heart-wrenching journey home to find their owners. Yes, great leadership can even transcend species, in the right crisis.

“Shadow the Golden Retriever obviously showing that a calm head is what’s needed when working with different personalities if you want to succeed,” explains Brandon Egley, founder of Dog Friendly. “The immaturity of the bulldog and the sass of the cat could have meant they didn’t succeed, but the wise, calm head kept the team on point for their goal.”

6. Danny Rich in Anaconda

Anaconda follows Jennifer Lopez’ character, Terri Flores, as she journeys through the Amazon to find a long lost tribe. Danny Rich (played by Ice Cube) is her National Geographic cameraman. They are tricked into hunting a deadly green anaconda.

One of his core leadership qualities is courageousness. He stands by his friends to keep them safe from ravenous anacondas. But, he’s one of the only surviving characters, witnessing overwhelming devastation and loss along the way.

Like a fish out of water, Danny is out of his element, yet he perseveres and you have to admire that. He’s a determined and loyal leader, able to put his own fears aside and remain confident and calm for those around him.

7. Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road

Rebel, rebel! Furiosa is a war captain raging against the machine. Every ounce of her is focused on overthrowing a brutal leader. She’s a feminist hero, with a rabble of female prisoners in her ranks. All they want to do is get home and when life gets in the way, they unite to tackle fast and furious action-packed fights.

She’s a strong-willed leader who’s driven to save lives, with no desire for reward. She cares about her team, remaining loyal to the people around her, as long as this loyalty is reciprocated.

Considering the post-apocalyptic wasteland she exists in, her leadership style is surprisingly democratic. She listens to and considering ideas from the people lower on the pecking order. But she’s assertive when she makes decisions and people follow.

Furiosa is a fearless leader – she never gives up and will do everything she can to complete a task or mission for the sake of those around her.

These leadership qualities put her firmly in control. She’s respected by those around her, therefore her ideas and commands are more likely to be acted upon.

Picture of Amanda Bathory-Griffiths
Amanda Bathory-Griffiths
Amanda is TSW's Head of Marketing. Her articles are largely about the benefits of professional development investment.
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