Leadership in the Movies:
Brassed Off

The Caring Leader

brassed off

This is part of a series of articles that combine two great passions of mine: leadership and movies. The series seeks to explore leadership through the lens of selected movies. Today we are looking at the 1996 movie Brassed Off written and directed by Mark Herman and staring Pete Postlethwaite and a young Ewan McGregor. I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis (so as not to spoil a great movie). Brassed Off is currently online at Vidzi TV Click here for movie.

The film is set in Grimley, a Northern mining town in the UK, during the aggressive mid-nineties coal pit closure programme of the British Conservative government. The narrative of the pit closure is told through the lens of the Grimley Colliery Brass Band. With the band members facing redundancy, they struggle to see the point of continuing playing for the colliery band (“You can’t have a colliery band without a bloody colliery can you?” reasons one of the members). This attitude frustrates long term band leader Danny Ormondroyd who has dedicated much of his life to the band and continues to drive for excellence and achievement even though all of the band members face losing their jobs, homes, self-respect and hope. “It’s music that matters” he tells stunned miners at band rehearsal, reflecting the detached, analytical, uncaring mindset and language of the colliery bosses who are manipulating events and focused on process, not people.

As he witnesses the community break apart, his son’s attempted suicide and the demise of his own health, Danny slowly realises that “it’s people that matter”. In a highly emotional address to a packed concert hall in London where the band has just won the much coveted national finals for the first time in their history, Danny refuses the cup and makes a caring speech about the impact of the pit closure on the community and lives of its people.

This is the story of a band leader’s transition from process, status, legacy and technical excellence toward a more caring leadership. Caring Leadership is characterised by James Autry in his book Love and Profit: The Art of Caring Leadership as recognising and accepting our ‘humanness’ – “It means attention to the human things: illness, death, marriage, childbirth. It means notes, calls and visits. And it means the willingness not to hide your own humanness behind the manager mask.”

Danny’s transition toward caring leadership is expressed in his own (emotional) words on the night of winning the trophy:

Danny: This band behind me’ll tell you that that trophy means more to me than owt else in the whole world. But they’d be wrong! Truth is, I THOUGHT it mattered. I thought that MUSIC mattered. But does it bollocks? Not compared to how people matter. Us winning this trophy won’t mean bugger-all to most people. But us refusing it – like what we’re going to do now – well, then it becomes news, doesn’t it?
[flurry of press camera shutters]
Danny: You see what I mean. That way, I’ll not just be talking to myself, will I? Because over the last ten years, this bloody government has systematically destroyed an entire industry. OUR industry. And not just our industry – our communities, our homes, our lives. All in the name of “progress”. And for a few lousy bob. I’ll tell you something else you might not know, as well. A fortnight ago, this band’s pit were closed – another thousand men lost their jobs. And that’s not all they lost. Most of them lost the will to win a while ago. A few of them even lost the will to fight. But when it comes to losing the will to live, to breathe, the point is – if this lot were seals or whales, you’d all be up in bloody arms. But they’re not, are they, no, no they’re not. They’re just ordinary common-or-garden honest, decent human beings. And not one of them with an ounce of bloody hope left. Oh aye, they can knock out a bloody good tune. But what the fuck does that matter?
[gasps emotionally, close to tears]

Danny: And now I’m going to take my boys out onto the town. Thank you.
[rapturous applause]

The context to this is the colliery leadership. They are cold and operate a Taylorist scientific management model of task orientated, status-driven, regulative management using dehumanised statistics and reports to write off entire communities. They can’t see how relationships, people, personal growth, community, opportunity and accomplishment can not only coexist side-by-side with more traditional notions of profit and organisational growth but propel and generate it as employees feel more connected, motivated and loved. Great things are achieved by having a connected and committed workforce that drive for success and achievement because they care for their leader – this is exemplified by the achievement of the colliery band.

From watching the movie and reflecting on Autry’s research, caring leadership can be characterised in the following way. Caring Leaders:-

1. Recognize that people matter and see investment in people as a means to achieving success and profitability as people work harder for caring leaders
2. Acknowledge that people are motivated by recognition and care above goal setting, statistics and personal mastery
3. Break down barriers – they are not interested in status, hierarchy, power and control
4. Are not afraid of demonstrating vulnerability and emotion
5. See the growth and progress toward achievement (including making mistakes) as significant as the achievement itself.
6. Focus on the human stories and tragedies that unfold around them
7. Celebrate and encourage diversity

As we emerge from this tough recession that saw jobs cut and a focus on austerity (“more for less”), many leadership commentators are calling for a renewed investment in people and a more compassionate and engaged leadership. This formula of caring leadership may well have come of age. If leaders start to adopt the seven key behaviours outlined above, like Band Leader Danny, they will begin to shift away from the principle of scientific management that has dominated this decade and begin to show their human side.

Look out for further articles in this series.

by Ric Kelly PhD.