A friend of mine recently asked a question that initially stumped me; which fictional character — be it from film, television, a book, or a play — best describes your ideal leader, and why?

I’m not sure he could have posed a more difficult question. As a student of film and one who uses cinema to teach leadership, I had to ponder his question carefully.

There are so many good examples of both good and bad leadership in film. Some of my highlights are Juror No. 8, Henry Fonda’s role in the movie 12 Angry Men. Others include Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, or one of my favorite leaders, Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins in the Shawshank Redemption. All of these leaders reluctantly led others but were followed because their sense of direction compelled people around them to do what was right. All were role models of a sort and all exhibited extreme humility.

This line of thought led to my favorite leader in a movie, who — like the aforementioned — was not an “authorized” leader, but one who recognized the right thing to do and acted on it. In the movie 12 O’Clock High, long esteemed as one of the best movies about leadership, hero Frank Savage takes a down-on-its–luck, fictional World War II bombing group and using what Frank McGregor termed “transformational leadership,” creates a true fighting team.

But Savage isn’t my pick for the best fictional leader in film. Instead, that title belongs to Savage’s adjutant, Maj. Harvey Stovall. He plays the pivotal role in the entire film, and actor Dean Jagger won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Stovall.

Stovall is Savage’s first follower. This is tough for him because he was a personal friend with Savage’s predecessor. Yet Stovall soon recognizes what Savage is trying to do, and in a pivotal scene, supports Savage by slowing transfer paperwork down so Savage has time to work on the group. Throughout the film, Stovall is supportive and yet speaks truth to power in helping Savage better understand the fliers and the 918th Bombardment Group he is tasked to save.

So why is a balding, middle-aged paper pushing adjutant the best example of great leadership? Because in many movies, the leader is defined only by their vision and direction provided. Little is said about how a leader generates or rewards alignment and commitment. That’s where the character of Stovall shines. He is the one — by stepping forward and accepting Savage’s difficult tasks — who truly demonstrates alignment with the vision and commitment to the ideal.

The first follower is sometimes the true leader.

Looking back, I realized that the leaders I identified in the films were strong people who were not only good at direction, but who really worked quietly to align and reward the support of their followers. For Juror No. 8, it was listening to and empathizing with the other jurors. For Atticus Finch, it was his dedication to the law that created respect from the black community. For Andy Dufresne, it was using his intellect to both reward fellow prisoners through quiet rebellion with a library and to win the day in his ultimate escape.

It tells me that many leaders are within our ranks, ready to be mobilized and rewarded for doing the right thing. And when provided direction, they will insure alignment with positive intent and intense commitment. A high performance team is one where every member is committed to the success of every other member. Like Stovall, we all take on fellow leaders as our clients and seek to make them successful. When we step forward in alignment and act in commitment, that‘s true leadership.

4 thoughts on “In Film and Life, Sometimes the First Follower is the True Leader

  1. Check out Twelve O’Clock High. A hard-as-nails general takes over a bomber unit suffering from low morale and whips them into fighting shape. Gregory Peck.
    There’s a price to pay tho.
    But great leadership moments.

    1. Oops..you did call it out..

  2. Stephen Kao says:

    In my opinion, Jesus is the role model of leadership. He is the perfect example of what you describe. He follows and obeys God the Father. He is the first follower and the true leader.

  3. Bruce Roller says:

    I love this; A high performance team is one where every member is committed to the success of every other member. I would add: “and when every member is passionate about the mission.”

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