6 Actors Who Captured Transformative Leadership On the Big Screen (And What You Can Learn From Them)
Transformative leadership wins hearts and minds through charisma and shared vision.
Humanity’s progress depends on remarkable people who step forward to inspire and guide others. Modern culture reflects this need with the worship of the entrepreneur, with the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk as modern-day symbols of innovation and leadership. Effective leadership wins the hearts and minds of the masses; but what makes a remarkable leader?
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There is an element of mystery, a charm or charisma that seems to be god-given, rather than developed. However, research has identified key qualities of transformational leadership, bringing these qualities to light. Let’s look at the secrets of transformative leadership, backed up by Hollywood’s most impressive examples, to give you a clear idea of what it takes — along with quality movie recommendations.
What Is Transformative Leadership?
What comes to mind when you think of a leader? Most of us have an idealized image of leadership. Sure, there are negative examples, such as a tyrant ruling over others with fear and intimidation, or an authoritarian who demands other people do as they say. But most of us can identify leaders who embody something special — the ability to transform others, not through fear, but through inspiration.
Transformative Leadership Theory
James MacGregor Burns, a historian and political scientist who extensively studied presidents, coined the term transformative leadership in the 1970s. His work has been studied and built upon since then. In 1991, scholars Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio introduced three distinct categories of leadership styles:
- Laissez-faire: a French term that translates to “let them do (what they want),” a passive style of leadership that puts the responsibility of decision-making on employees. These leaders are absent and shirk at making decisions and leading by example.
- Transactional: this is a standard form of leadership, which doesn’t have big goals or desire to make positive change, but keeps things ticking over. These leaders will organize teams based on reward and punishment and monitor only to find fault. Think of a sales manager who is uninspired by their work, and encourages the team to perform and hit targets with the promise of bonuses.
- Transformative: these leaders go above and beyond. They’re not around to keep the status quo, but to completely rethink the organization’s (or culture’s) way of operating. A significant element of this type of leadership is the ability to connect vision and values, getting people to “buy in” to the cultural shift. These leaders focus less on short-term transactions, and more on the bigger picture.
Leadership styles apply to any scenario where leadership occurs. The most obvious is in an organization; think of the CEO or manager position. But leadership occurs in families, sports teams, communities, and cultural movements. The likes of Martin Luther King or Gandhi may come to mind. Many transformative leaders don’t have high profiles, but the chances are, their followers will detect something remarkable.
The Four Dimensions of Transformational Leadership
What makes that something remarkable? Exceptional communication skills are, of course, essential, along with self-awareness and a solid grasp of human psychology. You could argue that the right timing for a message to be received, and the relevance of the leader’s vision, all contribute. In addition, Bass and Avoilio identified the four dimensions of transformational leadership:
- Individualized consideration: these leaders don’t expect everyone to have the same needs, but they’re able to adapt and inspire a diverse cross-section of people. Not everyone will be inspired or motivated by the same approach, but these managers will find a way for each individual.
- Inspirational motivation: in order to go above and beyond, these leaders know how to connect to an inspired vision, how to communicate that, and how to identify ways to move towards the vision. Not relying on punishment and reward, they stir the hearts and minds, encouraging others to become part of the shared vision and values.
- Idealized influence: these leaders are ethical and model, and lead by example. They don’t shy away from difficult decisions but demonstrate integrity, thoughtfulness, and care, whilst always inspiring their teams to do better.
- Intellectual stimulation: these leaders encourage people’s input and foster creativity. They’re aware of their own biases and aren’t afraid to welcome other perspectives. Rather than believing their way is the right way, they’ll always assess and update, and that includes challenging the mental models and conventional ways of thinking.
Examples of Transformative Leadership in Film
Some individuals command the attention of thousands, or millions, of followers; these people inspire others to become better, to exceed their own expectations. Others fight for a cause in acts of courage and resilience that go unnoticed by the masses. No matter their origin, Hollywood has captured many of these stories on the big screen. Below isn’t a definitive list, but a collection of the many faces of transformative leadership.
1. Samuel L. Jackson in Coach Carter
Sport is a powerful vessel for transformative leadership to shine. That was Ken Carter’s initial focus (Jackson) when he returned to his old school, Richmond High, to coach their basketball team. Based on a true story, Carter made waves for suspending his top performers for poor academic grades. This wasn’t only about basketball, but wanting the best out of his underprivileged group, where many end up in prison. Carter’s passion and inspiration were aimed off-the-court, as well as on it.
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The movie captures how Carter instills a sense of respect, determination, and confidence — a form of idealized influence. He stands up for his belief in improving the players’ grades, despite huge amounts of pressure. “I took this job because I wanted to effect change in a special group of young men,” he says, “and this is the only way I know how to do that.” Eventually, the players get on board. A number get scholarships to attend college.
2. Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter
Although not an obvious choice, Harry Potter (Radcliffe) is a transformative leader in his own magical sense. Fighting for the forces of good over evil, Potter continues to develop and grow as he moves through education at Hogwarts, mentored by Albus Dumbledore. Eventually, he goes on to mentor others, particularly when the school’s pupils are told they are not able to train in practical defense against dark arts. In response, Harry forms a secret group, Dumbledore’s Army.
During secret training, Potter encourages the team of students to go beyond what they thought was possible, through inspirational motivation. “Every great wizard in history started out as nothing more than what we are now — students,” he tells them. He meets every individual’s needs, particularly Neville, who looks like he’ll never make the grade but is supported by Harry until he eventually learns the spell he’s been trying hard to master.
3. Helen Mirren in Calendar Girls
What do a group of middle-aged women from Yorkshire have to do with transformative leadership? Another film based on true events, Calendar Girls tells the story of a group of women who pose for a naked calendar, with the noble aim of raising money for a cancer charity. However, against all expectations, they start to receive more and more attention, before their story reaches the heights of global fame, including an interview on The Tonight Show.
Their exposure isn’t through pure luck, though. Leader of the group Chris (Mirren) is shown navigating all sorts of hurdles along the way, not least her impassioned speech to get the calendar’s official status. What’s most impressive is how Chris leads by example in navigating the unexpected leadership status. She wears her heart on her sleeve, inspiring with passion and authenticity, as well as a never-say-die attitude.
4. Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers
Another true-story set in a high school setting, Freedom Writers shows the naive but well-intentioned efforts of new teacher Erin Gruwell (Swank). Joining a school in LA that was heavily divided by racial segregation following riots a few years prior, Gruwell seems to be on a lost cause. The students have no desire to learn and have to some degree already become resigned to their fate. But the teacher has a different idea.
Working tirelessly to find different ways to motivate the group, she begins by attempting to show them what they have in common, not what separates them. Gruwell works extra jobs in order to fund the school’s purchase of books, and, after reading The Diary of Anne Frank, arranges a school visit from Miep Gies, the Austrian secretary who protected Frank. In the end, her enthusiasm and belief in her students changes their belief of what’s possible.
5. Brad Pitt in Moneyball
Another story of sport leadership based on true events, Moneyball depicts a different style of transformative leadership. Rather than lead the line with passion and charisma, in the way Coach Carter did, Billy Beane (Pitt) takes an unconventional approach in piecing together Oakland Athletic’s baseball team in the 2002 season. Faced with financial constraints, he works with Yale economics graduate, Peter Brand, who has a radical way of scouting players, by relying on cold, hard data.
Faced with a lack of belief and even ridicule by those around him, Beane sees the potential in Brand’s “sabermetric model” and assembles a team that, on paper, appears to be low in quality. To make things more difficult, initially the team struggles, and Beane fires his head scout who opposes the idea. Eventually, the pair’s approach leads to success and is now fully integrated into the sport.
6. Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther
Would any current movie list be complete without a superhero element? The multi-billion-dollar frenzy of superhero movies in recent decades points to the popularity of comic book adaptations. There are a number of reasons why. Larger-than-life portrayals of invincible heroes are pure escapism, a way to be entertained and stimulated by the big screen. But there’s more to it; superheroes amplify the qualities of transformational leadership, particularly idealized influence.
Although there are plenty of options to choose from, Black Panther stands out as a deeper exploration of what it means to lead. And not just any type of leading, either — what it takes to be a King. The late and great Chadwick Boseman excels as T’Challa, showing the often painful process of trying to lead with integrity and honor, whilst always holding the bigger picture in view, and pre-empting the repercussions of decisions, knowing when to fight or negotiate, and how to respond in high-pressure situations.
In one powerful scene, T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, tells him: “You are a good man with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.” Those words ring true; similar to Ken Carter, T’Chaka knows that true leadership will involve making decisions that might upset others, but honoring values is more important than being liked, even if that weighs heavy on the heart.