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Management and Leadership in Movies

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Management and Leadership in Movies

Management and leadership themes have been the subject of movies for a long time. Watching and analyzing feature films, documentaries, and TV series, it is easy to notice that they are a great source of knowledge on business, various types companies and organizations as well as their leaders, managers and employees. Some films provide wonderful case studies not only of companies and their stories, but also of various leaders and managers, who must deal with difficult business reality. Many films show examples of effective leadership. But there is also an abundance of movies that show spectacular failures of managers and leaders. Doctor Włodzimierz Świątek, lecturer in management and leadership at SWPS University offers a review of leaders portrayed in movies.

Leaders in film and TV series

The popular film “Wall Street” (1987), directed by Oliver Stone, tells the story of Bud Fox, a young ambitious stockbroker, who wants to get to the top of the world of finance, at any price. He begins working for a wealthy, but unscrupulous boss, Grodon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Gekko is an ultimate egoist and a narcissist, who will stop at nothing to make money. He is also known to cruelly test his employees, a behavior that can be classified as harassment and abuse.

Another real-life leader, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, has been portrayed in two feature films: “Jobs” (2013), directed by Joshua Michael Stern, and “Steve Jobs” (2015), directed by Danny Boyle.Stern’s film tells the story of a man, who faces many life challenges in pursuit of his business vision despite the cost. However, apart from unquestionable and spectacular successes, the film also shows the dark side of Steve Jobs’s life, which has not been well known and often omitted from the image of the Apple founder created for the media. Watching the film, viewers learn that the greatness, which Jobs embodied, came at a very high price and required incredible sacrifices. His personal relationships suffered the most, but so did his professional ones. The movie completely refutes the opinion that Jobs had never wanted to hurt anyone. Many scenes in the movie show Jobs as an unscrupulous boss, who did not let anyone stand in his way. If people did not share his vision, they had to be prepared for the worst, i.e. for being fired, humiliated and degraded in front of other employees, which could also mean the end of the whole professional career. The film also shows a dramatic conflict between Jobs and his ex-girlfriend (Chrisann), who also was the mother of his daughter, Lisa. Full of aggression arguments with Chrisann about money, disowning and abandoning his daughter show the real, hidden, face of Steve Jobs. Both movies draw a picture of a man, for whom it was difficult to build relationships with other people and whom many of his collaborators saw as a tyrant. Due to these character traits, Jobs was perceived as a fundamentalist, who lived in a black and white world and who probably did not fully realize that his behavior hurt people and caused them a lot of suffering.

Another film, “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), directed by David Frankel, shows a portrait of an authoritarian and egotistic female executive, Miranda Priestly. She is called the “Dragon Lady” by her subordinates, because she abuses them and strikes fear wherever she goes. The Dragon Lady (played by the excellent Meryl Streep) is charismatic, exceptional, sophisticated and cold. Bullying is her second nature.

In a Danish black comedy “The Boss of It All” (2006), directed by Lars von Trier, we see a leader, an owner of an IT company, Ravn, who is an example of a manipulator with no leadership abilities. Since the inception of the company Ravn has pretended to be an ordinary employee, while creating a false persona of an “absent” boss, who resides in the United States. His shenanigans are working and employees believe that the American boss really exists, oversees the workings of the company from a distance and keeps in touch with his employees by e-mail. Thanks to this cunning plan, Ravn is liked and accepted by his colleagues. In difficult moments, he blames the American boss for mistakes and failures. But when the real crisis comes, Ravn intends to sell the company to a businessman from Iceland. To make this happen, he hires an actor, Kristoffer, to play the role of the American boss. This allows Ravn to maintain the image of a victimized employee, while in reality he is a calculating and cold materialist, devoid of ethics, who is throwing his employees to the wolves.

“Disclosure” (1994), directed by Barry Levinson, is another film about leadership-related issues. Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) is a happily married computer expert in a big company. He has been hoping for a big promotion, but it turns out that the position has been given to a woman, Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore). Once, Tom and Meredith were in a steamy relationship and now Meredith is attempting to seduce Tom again. When Tom rejects her advances, Meredith immediately accuses him of sexual harassment. Ruthless and desperate female boss is not letting go and continues her intrigue.

In a very popular television series “The Office” (the American NBC production 2005-2013), which is a remake of the British BBC series (2001-2003), viewers watch an eccentric, egoistical, weird and funny manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell). Scott is an example of a leader who has no authority among his employees. His behavior elicits rather typical reactions among his subordinates, for example some people suck up to him and cater to his every whim, in the hope of being spared in a crisis situation (an impending restructuring of the company and lay offs). Days in the office of a paper company are generally boring, monotonous and closed in an “open space” (which in itself is a cruel joke), so the boss tries to show his employees a human face. In difficult times, he knows how to make his employees laugh, how to motivate them and become their buddy. His sales team comprises of real aces, but without their favorite boss-bandmaster, they would not be able to reach their sales targets. In the television series, Michael Scott is shown as a person, who in the era of brutal capitalism characterized by aggression, hostility and ruthlessness, is able to prove that despite everything his people are the most important.

The motto of SWPS University is: “WE THE UNIVERSITY” and our mission is based on three main values: OPENNESS, RESPONSIBILITY AND COURAGE. I think that as the faculty we should support student initiatives, such as the Film Management Academy, which provide students with opportunities to develop their passions and learn at the same time.

Leaders and their teams on screen

If you want to know how to turn a group of convicts, criminals and opportunists into a High Performance Team, you might want to watch “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), directed by Robert Aldrich. During WWII, an American major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is charged with training a dozen convicted murderers to undertake a mass assassination mission. The target of the operation is a castle in France, where the top brass of the Hitler’s army is vacationing. If the operation succeeds, the convicts-turn-soldiers will be pardoned. Major Reisman begins to train the twelve men who have nothing to lose, but are of drastically different temperaments and characters. The men are not used to discipline, they defy orders, and they rebel against imposed boundaries. They are aggressive towards each other and plan to get rid of the major. Despite this initial situation, their commander manages to gain their respect and trust. By analyzing the story step by step, viewers see a transformation of an unorganized group of individuals into a highly effective team.

In another excellent movie, “Coach Carter” (2005), based on a true story, directed by Thomas Carter, viewers see Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), who returns to his old school, the Richmond High School in California, to coach the basketball team back to shape. Viewers quickly notice that Ken Carter is not only a great basketball coach, but also a sensitive and responsible teacher. His main motto is clear and sound: The most important thing in life and in upbringing of young people is teaching them the key ethical norms and values, such as responsibility, reliability, perseverance in pursuit of goals, team work and respect for their teachers. Sport (in this case basketball) is only an additional element and a tool to attain higher goals. Initially, students-athletes do not want to accept the strict rules and clear norms of conduct imposed by the coach. They rebel against them and manifest their disrespect for their teacher and coach. But thanks to his unwavering and consistent attitude, Ken Carter gradually gains the respect of his students and becomes a role model for the team members. At the end of the film, it is obvious that the majority of students have properly understood the message that Ken Carter wanted to convey through his coaching methods: That the key to success in life is conquering oneself, one’s own weaknesses and bad habits.

“Any Given Sunday” (1999), directed by Oliver Stone, is another moving and educational story about a leader and his team. An American football team, Miami Sharks, is going through a serious crisis: the owner of the team dies, leaving the inheritance to his greedy daughter (Cameron Diaz), who wants to make a quick profit. Moreover, the quarterback gets injured and is replaced by a young and cocky player, Willie Beamen, who wants to win at all cost. A series of losses is another blow to the team’s morale and motivation and the team begins to disintegrate. In this bleak moment, the team’s coach, Tony D’Amato (excellent Al Pacino) takes the reins and in a decisive moment, gives a fiery speech that motivates the players. “Either we heal as a team or we are going to crumble. Inch by inch, play by play, till we're finished...we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb outta hell... one inch at a time.” During the film, viewers watch how the torn, but also full of determination, coach is attempting to save the ethos of athletic competition, all the time being cognizant of the fact that he is fighting for something more than just the fair play rules at the stadium. The film shows two opposite attitudes towards life - conformist, which allows for all kinds of unethical behaviors in pursuit of fame and big money and an idealistic attitude. D’Amato tells his players, loud and clear that winning is not everything. The most important thing is how you win. Honesty, solidarity, loyalty and courage are key on the way to the championship. Undoubtedly, these values are crucial for the quality of life and coach D’Amato, who despite everything has the courage to go against the unscrupulous practices imposed by media and business, is trying to instill these values in his players.

“Moneyball” (2011), directed by Bennett Miller, tells the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the manager of a baseball team, Oakland Athletics. Despite a very modest budget, Billy manages to form a team of players, who despite the predictions of “experts” begin to win and succeed in a spectacular way. The team wins 20 games in a row, an unprecedented record in the American Baseball League. To achieve his goal, Beane employs a young talented economist, Peter Brand, who is an expert in assessing the worth of baseball players in the league. Using new methods of analysis, based on statistics and computer calculations, Beane and Brand make controversial decisions leading to a revolution in the way the players are selected. Beane is shown as a credible real person, emanating energy, determination and charisma. These traits are undoubtedly attributes of an effective leader, who despite difficulties, challenges and failures, leads his or her team to success.

Film Management Academy

In the context of the above-noted film analysis, we are happy to announce a new project - the Film Management Academy. The Academy is an initiative of students of Management and Leadership program, at SWPS University. Mayu Gralińska-Sakai (1st year student of Management and Leadership), who is also a ballet dancer and actor, is the project coordinator. Mayu graduated from the Warsaw Ballet School and worked in theatre and film. As a dancer and actor, Mayu appeared on stage and on screen many times, however she is mostly interested in production and film management. “Before the clapperboard claps for the very first time on a film set, the film crew must go through many stages that I want to learn about and understand. Behind every great movie, there is intelligent management and leadership”, says Mayu. Currently, we are looking for students interested in film, film production and management. The Film Management Academy is planning the following activities: A Film Discussion Club, film experiments, meetings with professionals from the film industry and various workshops, such as: managing film crews, personal development, and script writing. It is an excellent opportunity for students to discover and develop their artistic and leadership potential.


włodzimierz Świątek

About the Author

Włodzimierz Świątek, Ph.D. – trainer, coach, consultant, business psychologist, expert and lecturer in management and leadership at SWPS University. He specializes in the development and mastering of managerial and leadership skills, building and development of teams, change management and development of creativity and innovation of individuals and teams. He runs workshops and provides coaching sessions in facilitation for leaders and their innovative teams. In his classes and workshops, he includes analysis of films, which present stories of companies and leaders. He has written a film scrip for Turkusowa rapsodia (A turquoise rhapsody). His favorite film directors include Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel and Jim Jarmusch.