Leadership classifications for (some, male) classic film protagonists


Really? Is that the subject of this Sunday’s blog post? Couldn’t it be about something a little more scintillating like: “Analyzing Sherwin Williams’ (paint) palette with respect to Technicolor’s” or “The History of Movie Sound Technology (and why the iPod generation will never be able to appreciate Sensurround)”? Or, if the subject is what follows below, couldn’t I have at least come up with a better title? Guess not. Hope you’ll read on anyway;-)

When I earned my Masters in Business Administration, a small business owner friend of mine shared his – and apparently others’ – experience and brief assessment of newly minted MBA graduates: they’re frequently wrong, but never in doubt. Ha Ha. As amusing as this is, one can learn a great deal in any advanced degree program, if one applies oneself. While not everything one learns in any school is applicable in the real world – perhaps there is too much theory vs. practical (and adaptive) solutions being taught – hopefully at least some of what is learned proves useful. One piece of the curriculum that I’ve found “rings true” in the business environments I’ve been in is leadership theory.

So I’ve been toying with the idea of this article for some time, not really wanting to commit the time or effort to doing it right: a full analysis, rich with illustrative examples found through exhaustive research. In short, a moirafinnie-type essay. But alas, I didn’t have the time between my last post and this one (filling in for keelsetter) to complete all the necessary tasks, let alone write about the findings. However, I am able to share this “30,000 foot” view – vs. a fire hose of information – which encapsulates the main idea, and I hope that you’ll find it interesting even though I’ve only just begun to delve into the topic.


Firstly, some definitions of terms:

Thanks to Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, it is widely accepted that some of the essential attributes for leaders include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and social skills. The author has also identified several leadership styles, classifying their competencies, most effective situations, and impact on climate (e.g. of those around him). Here is a quick primer of these styles (from his Harvard Business Review article “Leadership That Gets Results”):

  • Coercive – A coercive leader is one that demands immediate compliance. His competencies include a drive to achieve, taking initiative and self-control. He operates best in a crisis situation. However, his impact in a ‘normal’ working environment is negative.
  • Authoritative/visionary – an authoritative leader mobilizes people toward a vision. His competencies include self-confidence and empathy; he can be an effective catalyst for change. He operates best in situations when change requires a new vision, or when a clear direction is needed. His impact is strongly positive.
  • Affiliative – an affiliative leader creates harmony and builds emotional bonds. His competencies are empathy, building relationships and communication. He can heal rifts in a team and can motivate people during stressful situations. His impact is positive.
  • Democratic/participative – a democratic leader forges consensus through participation. His competencies include collaboration, team leadership and communication. He is ideal for building buy-in or consensus, and getting input from valuable team members. His impact is positive.
  • Pacesetting – a pacesetting leader sets high standards for performance. His competencies include a drive to achieve, taking initiative and conscientiousness. He is best in situations which require quick results from a highly motivated and competent team, but his overall impact on climate is negative.
  • Coaching – a coaching leader develops people for the future. His competencies include developing others, empathy and self-awareness. He is best in helping others improve their performance, and when helping to develop long term strengths. His impact is positive.

Note that some of these leadership styles can have negative impacts. Below, I’ve limited my classic film protagonist examples to (male characters, and) those whose impact is ultimately positive, or that come out well in the end (even if it’s the VERY end). So, there is an opportunity for another (future?) essay which examines (female, and/or) non-positive leaders, from Captains Bligh and Queeg to the countless anti-heroes of film.

The low-hanging fruit for examples of leadership styles in classic film are war movies. However, there’s not a lot of diversity because military leaders have a unique relationship with their subordinates, who aren’t employees and aren’t in their situations by choice because they were drafted for duty (vs. today’s volunteer forces). So, it’s easy to find examples of COERCIVE and PACESETTING leaders:

Among the plethora of COERCIVE examples, some of the best include: Errol Flynn’s character in The Dawn Patrol (1938), Clark Gable’s in Command Decision (1948), and Gregory Peck’s (aptly named General Savage) in Twelve O’Clock High (1949). In fact, according to an IMDb trivia entry (not always a reliable source), this latter film was used by U.S. Armed Forces for officers training. There are also lower chain-of-command examples, the prototypical Marine or Army drill sergeants like Stryker (John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)), Ryan (Richard Widmark in Take the High Ground! (1953)), and more recently ‘Gunny’ (Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge (1986)).

Several of these are borderline PACESETTING examples as well; certainly Rock Hudson’s character in A Gathering of Eagles (1957) is more definitively a pacesetter.

A more recent example of the PACESETTING style on film can be found in Ed Harris’s portrayal of Gene Kranz – “Failure is not an option” – in the true story drama of Apollo 13 (1995). It should come as no surprise that the real Kranz had received a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in his youth, years before joining NASA, an organization where formerly trained military men (and pilots like Kranz) were found in large numbers. For what it’s worth, I know from personal experience that the IBM Corporation built a management training course in the late 90’s around Apollo 13 (1995); it emphasized the crisis management and teamwork aspects of the narrative, which were critical to the successful outcome of the service module’s recovery mission.

It’s far more difficult to spot any of the other styles being exhibited in war movies. The Enemy Below (1957) is an exception in that both the American Naval Destroyer Captain Murrell (played by Robert Mitchum) and his wily German U-boat foe, Captain Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens), would be classified as COACHING leaders.

Regarding the other leadership styles, one example of the DEMOCRATIC/PARTICIPATIVE style is 12 Angry Men (1957) in which Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 character begins as the only one who votes “not guilty” in the initial “secret ballot” regarding the accused. He then subsequently uses various techniques to gain “buy-in” such as rational persuasion, inspirational appeals, consultation, ingratiation, personal appeals, exchange, coalition tactics, legitimating tactics, and finally pressure to get each of the other jurors to change their “guilty” votes.

A cinematic example of the most ideal leadership style, with regards to its impact on drivers of change – the AUTHORITATIVE/VISIONARY leader (even though it’s a long time coming in the film) – is McDonald ‘Don’ Walling, William Holden’s character in Executive Suite (1954) … it’s just that it takes the entire movie for him to get there. Another may be Herman Boone, a character from another more recent film and real life portrayal (this time by Denzel Washington) in Remember the Titans (2000). Although Coach Boone demands perfection of himself and his team – a PACESETTING trait – and insists on compliance in what (as least initially) is a crisis situation – ala COERCIVE – his self-confidence and the clarity of his vision and direction results in his being a catalyst for change both on the field – the football team’s undefeated season – and off – a successful racial integration among teammates and in his community.

The most successful leaders use a variety of styles, depending upon the situation, which muddies the water when one attempts to pigeonhole anyone into a specific style. I tried to find examples which illuminate each definition, singularly. Unfortunately, the AFFILIATIVE leader is not as prevalent in film, at least among male protagonists, so I’ll leave it for you to suggest movies in which the (female?) lead relies on this style primarily.

Some other fascinating onscreen leaders that either fall into multiple style categories or defy easy classification altogether include Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)), Captain Kirk in the Star Trek series – although there is a Forbes article that has some interesting observations – and Walter Ramsey, Everett Sloane’s character in Patterns (1956).

Of course, I welcome your input! I know that among our Morlocks readers, there is a huge store of classic film knowledge … and I hope that you will feel free to share your relevant examples to further the discussion of this subject matter.

0 Response Leadership classifications for (some, male) classic film protagonists
Posted By dukeroberts : April 15, 2012 10:07 am

Everett Sloan’s character in Patterns is very similar to Fredric March’s character in Executive Suite. I don’t think either character falls under any of your categories listed above. They’re both the negative types.

The definition for “Affiliative” sounds a lot like teachers in pretty much every teacher movie ever made, like Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle or Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. You would think that Pacesetting or Coaching would be the appropriate term for those characters, but the Affiliative term seems to apply in the limited context of the film.

Posted By dukeroberts : April 15, 2012 10:07 am

Everett Sloan’s character in Patterns is very similar to Fredric March’s character in Executive Suite. I don’t think either character falls under any of your categories listed above. They’re both the negative types.

The definition for “Affiliative” sounds a lot like teachers in pretty much every teacher movie ever made, like Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle or Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. You would think that Pacesetting or Coaching would be the appropriate term for those characters, but the Affiliative term seems to apply in the limited context of the film.

Posted By moirafinnie : April 15, 2012 3:18 pm

What’s all this poppycock about a “moirafinnie” approach to this topic, Mack??? ;-)

To be honest, every time I start to think of the Coercive type as a man, visions of John Wayne on a tear pop into my head (and I really like Wayne as an actor). However, I was able to come up with some others who seem to fit the bill…though sometimes characters embody elements of more than one type of leader, no?

Coercive:
Merle Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Charles Laughton in The Big Clock (1948)
Margaret Sullavan in Cry Havoc (1943)
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981)
Henry Daniell as Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre (1944)
Robert Duvall as Bull Meachum in The Great Santini (1979)

Authoritative/Visionary: (I’m not so sure that this is always so positive, though such leaders who are catalysts for change are necessary periodically)
Raymond Massey as John Brown in Sante Fe Trail (1940)and Seven Angry Men (1955)
Spencer Tracy as Maj. Rogers in Northwest Passage(1940)
Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Democratic/participative:
Robert Mitchum as Lt. Walker in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
James Cagney in The Mayor of Hell (1933)
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Strike Up the Band (1940)

Pacesetting:
Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes (1948)
Jeff Bridges in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

Coaching:
Juano Hernandez in Young Man With a Horn (1950)
Raymond Massey (yes, again!) in Things To Come (1936)
Bette Davis as Miss Moffat in The Corn Is Green (1945)
Ralph Morgan and Otto Kruger in Magnificent Obsession in both the 1935 & 1954 versions.

The least easy one to come up with was the Affiliative Leader, but there were a few that popped into my head…
H.B. Warner, Jeffrey Hunter, Max Von Sydow and a kajillion other actors who have played Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1927) & (1961) versions, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and many more films.
Frankie Darro in Wild Boys of the Road (1933).

I’m sure that there are lots more that fit these interesting models drawn from your thought-provoking blog, HighHurdler. It’s always good to see one of your posts.

Posted By moirafinnie : April 15, 2012 3:18 pm

What’s all this poppycock about a “moirafinnie” approach to this topic, Mack??? ;-)

To be honest, every time I start to think of the Coercive type as a man, visions of John Wayne on a tear pop into my head (and I really like Wayne as an actor). However, I was able to come up with some others who seem to fit the bill…though sometimes characters embody elements of more than one type of leader, no?

Coercive:
Merle Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Charles Laughton in The Big Clock (1948)
Margaret Sullavan in Cry Havoc (1943)
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981)
Henry Daniell as Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre (1944)
Robert Duvall as Bull Meachum in The Great Santini (1979)

Authoritative/Visionary: (I’m not so sure that this is always so positive, though such leaders who are catalysts for change are necessary periodically)
Raymond Massey as John Brown in Sante Fe Trail (1940)and Seven Angry Men (1955)
Spencer Tracy as Maj. Rogers in Northwest Passage(1940)
Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Democratic/participative:
Robert Mitchum as Lt. Walker in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
James Cagney in The Mayor of Hell (1933)
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Strike Up the Band (1940)

Pacesetting:
Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes (1948)
Jeff Bridges in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

Coaching:
Juano Hernandez in Young Man With a Horn (1950)
Raymond Massey (yes, again!) in Things To Come (1936)
Bette Davis as Miss Moffat in The Corn Is Green (1945)
Ralph Morgan and Otto Kruger in Magnificent Obsession in both the 1935 & 1954 versions.

The least easy one to come up with was the Affiliative Leader, but there were a few that popped into my head…
H.B. Warner, Jeffrey Hunter, Max Von Sydow and a kajillion other actors who have played Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1927) & (1961) versions, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and many more films.
Frankie Darro in Wild Boys of the Road (1933).

I’m sure that there are lots more that fit these interesting models drawn from your thought-provoking blog, HighHurdler. It’s always good to see one of your posts.

Posted By MDR : April 15, 2012 7:45 pm

dukeroberts, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Patterns, so thanks for the refresher. I thought Sloane’s character was a bit more complex, and not as easy to nail down to one type. It’s funny, half way through writing the above I thought about teachers, and how they might ‘fit’ into certain style types. A future article?

moira, what can I say;-) Thanks for giving the topic so much thought and for providing so many examples that illustrate the various leadership style types! I greatly appreciate it and miss reading your posts here; hope we’ll see one soon.

Posted By MDR : April 15, 2012 7:45 pm

dukeroberts, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Patterns, so thanks for the refresher. I thought Sloane’s character was a bit more complex, and not as easy to nail down to one type. It’s funny, half way through writing the above I thought about teachers, and how they might ‘fit’ into certain style types. A future article?

moira, what can I say;-) Thanks for giving the topic so much thought and for providing so many examples that illustrate the various leadership style types! I greatly appreciate it and miss reading your posts here; hope we’ll see one soon.

Posted By dukeroberts : April 15, 2012 9:28 pm

Sloane may be more complex than that (it’s been a while since I’ve seen it too), but he was an absolute jerk.

Posted By dukeroberts : April 15, 2012 9:28 pm

Sloane may be more complex than that (it’s been a while since I’ve seen it too), but he was an absolute jerk.

Posted By Anonymous : April 15, 2012 11:18 pm

An interesting post. Since I didn’t get my Sunday afternoon nap, I could only come up with 1 actor for each of the types of leaders. Coervisive: Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen. He does a great job in coercing these military criminals in getting that mission accomplished.

Authoritative: Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver. True story about LA math teacher Jaime Escalante and his efforts at getting his math students to see the need to study hard and improve their math skills, ultimately taking AP Calculus, scoring high on the AP test, and going on to collge. He has the vision that they have more potential then they know, and that they can reach that goal.

Affiliative: Clifton Webb in Sitting Pretty. I watched this gem of a movie a month ago. It is a comedy, but Webb, as child behavioral expert Mr. Belvedere, fits that leadership description to a T. He brings the chaotic family through to the other side of parenting to where the home has harmony, communication is better, and leaves them with a positive sense instead of a harried, haphazard style of parenting.

Democratic: James Stewart in Flight of the Phoenix. He evaluates each plane crash survivor for the skills they have, skills that he is able to plot out and make the plan for the group’s ultimate try to get out of that desert and back to civilization.

Pacesetter: Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. He is a character who is driven to succeed, takes the iniative, his followers are very loyal to him and the cause.

Coaching:Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Mr Chippings is a gentle teacher;doesn’t yell or intimidate his pupils. He does teach them many lessons they will use in life and leaves a lasting impression on them.

Posted By Anonymous : April 15, 2012 11:18 pm

An interesting post. Since I didn’t get my Sunday afternoon nap, I could only come up with 1 actor for each of the types of leaders. Coervisive: Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen. He does a great job in coercing these military criminals in getting that mission accomplished.

Authoritative: Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver. True story about LA math teacher Jaime Escalante and his efforts at getting his math students to see the need to study hard and improve their math skills, ultimately taking AP Calculus, scoring high on the AP test, and going on to collge. He has the vision that they have more potential then they know, and that they can reach that goal.

Affiliative: Clifton Webb in Sitting Pretty. I watched this gem of a movie a month ago. It is a comedy, but Webb, as child behavioral expert Mr. Belvedere, fits that leadership description to a T. He brings the chaotic family through to the other side of parenting to where the home has harmony, communication is better, and leaves them with a positive sense instead of a harried, haphazard style of parenting.

Democratic: James Stewart in Flight of the Phoenix. He evaluates each plane crash survivor for the skills they have, skills that he is able to plot out and make the plan for the group’s ultimate try to get out of that desert and back to civilization.

Pacesetter: Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. He is a character who is driven to succeed, takes the iniative, his followers are very loyal to him and the cause.

Coaching:Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Mr Chippings is a gentle teacher;doesn’t yell or intimidate his pupils. He does teach them many lessons they will use in life and leaves a lasting impression on them.

Posted By Kingrat : April 17, 2012 2:26 pm

Great topics, great posts. I must say I find Henry Fonda extremely sinister in TWELVE ANGRY MEN, a master manipulator who teases out the right approach to sway each particular juror. This guy would be great on SURVIVOR. The scene where he forces Lee J. Cobb to break down is hard to watch. He’s the kind of leader who reads people well, knows what motivates each person and knows which arguments will work with them. The same methodology can be used for good or evil purposes.

Posted By Kingrat : April 17, 2012 2:26 pm

Great topics, great posts. I must say I find Henry Fonda extremely sinister in TWELVE ANGRY MEN, a master manipulator who teases out the right approach to sway each particular juror. This guy would be great on SURVIVOR. The scene where he forces Lee J. Cobb to break down is hard to watch. He’s the kind of leader who reads people well, knows what motivates each person and knows which arguments will work with them. The same methodology can be used for good or evil purposes.

Posted By JackFavell : April 20, 2012 12:32 pm

Under what category does Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears fall?

Posted By JackFavell : April 20, 2012 12:32 pm

Under what category does Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears fall?

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