The 9 Best Leadership Movies of All Time

Russell Crowe as Maximus in the 2000 film Gladiator Dreamworks Pictures / Universal Pictures

Aside from the wealth of books (both fictional and non-fictional), TED Talks and, increasingly, podcasts on the subject, there are few places more rich in leadership wisdom than the silver screen.

Indeed, throughout Hollywood's history, there have been numerous examples in movies of leading men or women who show leadership mettle, from adaptations of real-life stories to fictional heroes.

Therefore, if you are looking for similar inspiration on how to better lead your organisation, there are worse places to start than from the comfort of your sofa, popcorn in hand. To give you a guiding hand, here are nine of the best movies on leadership – and what you can take away from watching them.

12 Angry Men

A timeless classic, Sidney Lumet's 1957 legal drama stars Henry Fonda as an architect deliberating on the verdict of a murder trial. The only juror to vote not guilty, the film – which takes place almost entirely in one room – follows Fonda's attempts to convince the other 11 jurors why the accused should be acquitted.

A fascinating study of how perception and background can influence a decision-making process, 12 Angry Men also reveals how a calm and measured analysis of a situation can sway and convince even the most sceptical of doubters, represented here by Lee Cobb's Juror Number 3. Screened regularly in schools, Fonda's Juror Number 8 is a walking, talking lesson in how emotional intelligence, empathy and the ability to manage widely different personalities – in the most emotive of circumstances – are invaluable qualities in any leader.

Key Quote: “It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone even if you believe in something very strongly.”

See Also: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Patton

Taking a slightly less subtle approach than Lumet – Franklin J Shaffner's Oscar-winning epic is as much an open study of leadership as it is a biography – Patton follows the war years of the eponymous US Army general, played memorably by George C Scott.

Often revered for the spectacular opening address (an amalgamation of some of Patton's actual speeches), the film gives a remarkable insight into how leaders can cultivate a specific culture within their organisation, evidenced here by Patton's implementation of strict discipline upon his beleaguered charges.

Perhaps most usefully, though, it is unrestrained in its portrayal of its central character's flaws. Patton's lack of self-awareness costs him on several occasions, while a scene in which he berates a shell-shocked soldier for cowardice demonstrates his lack of empathy. Ultimately, though, the film should serve as a warning that good leadership is about putting ego aside, and that intense self-reflection should not be underestimated, however talented and successful you may be.

Key Quote: “In about fifteen minutes, we're going to start turning these boys into fanatics - razors. They'll lose their fear of the Germans. I only hope to God they never lose their fear of me.”

See Also: The Longest Day (1962)

The Social Network

Perhaps an obvious choice given the film's startup-based setting, David Fincher's 2010 character study of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg nonetheless has plenty to offer from a leadership perspective.

Interestingly, each of the proposed leaders demonstrates a different management approach throughout the film; for instance, Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), is a fast-talking, confident hustler who has an undoubted visionary streak but possesses poor management skills. The Winklevoss twins, meanwhile, exhibit strength in their ability to work as a team, but ultimately lean too heavily on the broader institutions that support them. 

Which, of course, leaves Jesse Eisenberg's Zuckerberg – a cocky, unlikeable authoritarian whose ruthless and intuitive decision-making skills see him emerge as the film's (and the real-life company's) victor. While the machinations of the original legal dispute over Facebook's ownership are dramatised, there are still several insightful takeaways in The Social Network, not least of which is its depiction of the sheer excitement of building your own business empire from scratch.

Key Quote: “I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try – but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention – you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.”

See Also: Steve Jobs (2015)

The Bridge Over the River Kwai

Essentially the story of two contrasting leadership styles, The Bridge Over the River Kwai stars Alec Guinness as a British Army officer imprisoned in a Japanese labour camp under the command of Sessue Hayakawa's Colonel Saito. Often complex and ambiguous, with a plot that calls the actions of both characters into question, it is a valuable examination of how different management approaches can yield markedly different results.

On the surface, these methods are stark; tasked with building a transport bridge, Guinness' Colonel Nicholson motivates his men with civility and respect in severe conditions, while Hayakawa's Saito opts for brutal authoritarianism. Yet when viewed through a project management perspective, the film reveals an array of elucidating realities about how to motivate, as well as what it means to make difficult decisions on behalf of others. If nothing else, legendary entrepreneur Warren Buffett has described it as his favourite film, telling Yahoo! Finance in 2019 that there are "a lot of lessons" in it, while numerous management experts have extolled the significance of the film's many leadership lessons.

Key Quote: “I realize how difficult it's going to be in this god-forsaken place where you can't find what you need, but there's the challenge.”

See Also: Unbroken (2014), The Railway Man (2013)

Apollo 13

Although several exist (see ArmageddonDarkest Hour and Thirteen Days), few movies depict crisis leadership as effectively as Apollo 13, Ron Howard's gripping account of the aborted real-life NASA mission. While the workplace in question may be thousands of miles above the surface of the earth – and the crisis more pressing than most – it emphasises the need for leaders to work together to find a positive resolution to a difficult problem.

The film has particular value for larger businesses, where collaboration between individual departments can be vital for wider success and, like several other films on this list, extols the idea that there is more than one way to lead successfully. In Apollo 13, this refers to the relationship between Tom Hanks' Jim Lovell, the onboard astronaut (literally) putting out fires, and Ed Harris' NASA flight administrator, Gene Kranz, orchestrating the recovery operation from Houston. Throughout, each character leads their individual team effectively, but it is the openness and the democracy of their collaboration that ultimately saves the day.

Key Quote: “Imagine if Christopher Columbus had come back from the New World and no one returned in his footsteps.”

See Also: Deep Impact (1998), Space Cowboys (2000)

It's A Wonderful Life

Although often dismissed as a pure feelgood Christmas fantasy, there are some profound leadership examples to be uncovered in Frank Capra's classic, in which Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey faces up to the consequences of financial ruin.

For instance, in the scene where Bailey's loan and savings firm is threatened due to an employee's mistake, Bailey himself takes responsibility for his worker's failings despite the aforementioned financial ruin it will incite. This is important, as a strong leader knows that accountability starts from the top and that taking responsibility – not shifting blame – is a hallmark of integrity. In addition, Bailey regularly takes pride in the work his company performs, and always seeks to instil a sense of ownership in all his employees.

Despite the somewhat saccharine nature of the film's ending, Bailey's self-determination can also serve as an inspiration to leaders, with Capra himself declaring the film's central theme to be the "individual's belief in himself" – no matter how seemingly tough the circumstances.

Key Quote: “This business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe... I'd go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.”

See Also: Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Gladiator

Bold, spectacular and big-budget, Ridley Scott's Roman epic ticks all the conventional boxes of a Hollywood epic. Yet amidst the action and the intrigue, there are also dozens of leadership lessons on offer, too, not least from Russell Crowe's titular general-turned-slave.

Commanding absolute loyalty from his men, Crowe's Maximus knows the name of every one of his subordinates, communicates his strategies clearly to them, and, quite literally, ensures their success by leading from the front. Yet even when stripped of his command and abandoned to slavery, his charisma and organisational skills draw out his natural inclination to lead, both within the gladiatorial arena and the political storm unfurling around him.

In Joaquin Phoenix's troubled Emperor Commodus, there are illustrations of mistakes to avoid, too: namely, that ruling through fear has severe limitations, and that no matter how good your intentions, surrounding yourself with the right people is vital. It can be easy to dismiss Gladiator as a swords-and-sandal revenge fantasy, but at its heart, Scott's film is – like his underrated 2005 follow-up, Kingdom of Heaven – an illustration of what it means to possess responsibility, for better or for worse.

Key Quote: “Five thousand of my men are out there in the freezing mud. Three thousand of them are bloodied and cleaved. Two thousand will never leave this place. I will not believe that they fought and died for nothing.”

See Also: Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Troy (2004)

Band of Brothers

Although technically not a feature motion picture, the nature of HBO's star-studded 2001 miniseries means that it effectively plays like an extended film – and there are certainly plenty of leadership lessons and takeaways crammed into its ten-hour running time.

Based on the wartime exploits of the paratroopers of Easy Company, what makes Band of Brothers so unique is that the real-life soldiers being depicted appear in the prologues and epilogues of each episode. This allows them to elaborate further on the concepts of leadership and selflessness often explored, with many of these musings coming from Major Richard Winters, a man who, aside from commanding Easy Company, also wrote several books on leadership.

Meanwhile, other key scenes touch upon the responsibilities and burdens of leadership, none more so than in the infamous 'Breaking Point' episode – an hour of television so thought-provoking and insightful that it is now used as a learning aid in military academies. Ultimately, it all boils down to one lesson, though. As Winters himself tells the camera, "if you're a leader, you lead the way. Not just on the easy ones. You take the tough ones, too".

Key Quote: (Reprimanding an officer for gambling with enlisted men) “What if you'd won? Don't ever put yourself in the position where you can take from these men.”

See Also: Generation Kill (2006), Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The Wire

Again, The Wire may not strictly be a stand-alone motion picture, but for observations on leadership – and the countless ways in which it can manifest itself – HBO's legendary drama is a sheer tour-de-force.

Whether it be union officials, teachers, drug lords, police officers, or the mayor of Baltimore himself, the principles of leadership – especially within the framework of institutions – are regularly put under the microscope, with often ambiguous results. From frustrated police commanders trying to change self-preservational work cultures, to drug kingpins tackling the problems of supply and demand, The Wire understands that leadership is never black and white, and that the restrictions that we place upon our organisations are often the greatest barrier to progress and innovation.

Key Quote: “Couple weeks from now, you're gonna be in some district somewhere with 11 or 12 uniforms looking to you for everything. And some of them are gonna be good police. Some of them are gonna be young and stupid. A few are gonna be pieces of sh*t. But all of them will take their cue from you. You show loyalty, they learn loyalty. You show them it's about the work, it'll be about the work. You show them some other kinda game, then that's the game they'll play.”

See Also: Chernobyl (2019), Treme (2010)

---

Fundamentally, leadership is a principle so ingrained in the human psyche that there are countless examples to be found in a whole host of films and television shows. Therefore, the next time that you want to settle down with a movie, why not turn it into a learning opportunity and consider one of the films on this list? After all, who knows what you might learn, and what you might be able to apply to your own leadership situations?

Alternatively, if none of the choices here take your fancy, then why not take a look at our list of the most essential entrepreneur films, too!

In the meantime, what other leadership movies would you recommend? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

Additional content provided by Sion Phillpott.