Leadership in the Movies:

The Visionary Leader


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 1995 movie Braveheart directed by Mel Gibson and featuring Mel Gibson as William Wallace and Patrick McGoohan as King Edward I (“Longshanks”). I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis (so as not to spoil a great movie).

The film, set in 13th Century Scotland, is an account of the life and death of William Wallace and the part he played in the Scottish uprising against the English and independence. The movie explores how Wallace, a commoner who wanted only to live a quiet family life, unites the fractious and self-serving clans and raises and leads a campaign against the English. Key historical events include the decisive victory against the English at Stirling, the sacking of York, Wallace’s betrayal at the hand of Robert the Bruce and the Scottish nobles at Falkirk and his trial and public execution in London. The movie closes with a snapshot of his legacy of how Robert the Bruce went on to unite Scotland and end English occupancy. The movie deals extensively with Wallace’s visionary leadership style.

The term visionary leader originates from Daniel Goleman et. al who set out six leadership styles: four that foster resonance (visionary, coaching, affiliative and democratic styles) and two that foster dissonance (pacesetting and commanding style). Visionary leadership is characterised as a style that “moves people toward shared dreams” and is most effective when a “clear direction is needed”. Visionary leaders set out where the organisation is heading, they create the big picture and communicate it “so that the functions in the organisation can see where their contribution fits in”. We can learn a lot about visionary leadership from watching the movie. Here are three things that Wallace does that marks him out as a visionary leader:

1. He has a strong compelling vision – a free and independent Scotland. This vision is compelling enough to create a permanent legacy of change for the sons and daughters of Scotland. What makes the vision compelling is the straightforward either/or choice: freedom or slavery.

2. He uses his early experiences, defining moments and core values to help define, shape and inform his vision The film portrays two early defining moments: (i) the death of his father which came about through the treachery of King Edward I and the ineptitude of the Scottish noblemen; (ii) the death of his wife and childhood sweetheart at the hands of a local aristocrat. These early defining moments haunt him in dreams throughout his life and help shape his core values of loyalty, family and freedom. His vision of a free independent Scotland and his dogged determination to achieve his vision is self-consciously stoked by his defining moments and values.

3. He unites people behind the vision. He does this by: (i) leading from the front and setting an example (Robert the Bruce says of him “he fights with passion and he inspires”); (ii) communicating the vision in very clear and personal terms (at the battle of Stirling he address the cynical troops using straight-forward and personal language “fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live at least a while and dying in your beds many years from now would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom”); (iii) staking his own reputation and life to deliver on the vision; (iv) setting out clear strategic ideas on how to deliver on the vision; (v) dealing directly with the factions opposing the vision (such as the way he dealt with the clans who do “nothing but talk”).

Braveheart conveys some core ideas on the nature of visionary leadership in the workplace. To be an effective visionary leader you need to have:

– a core vision and purpose
– self-awareness around what shaped that vision (including defining moments and values)
– an ability to unite people (both their hearts and mind) behind the core vision through demonstrating self-commitment, strategizing/communicating/personalising the vision and dealing with defectors.

The movie also teaches us some common pitfalls that visionary leaders can fall into around becoming too personally/emotionally attached to your work leading to burnout and ignoring the advice of your team (as was the case with Wallace who ignored the warnings not to broker any more deals with Robert the Bruce).

Look out for further articles in this series.

by Ric Kelly PhD.