Leadership in the Movies:
The Admirable Crichton

The Agile Leader

leadership in the movies

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 1957 British movie The Admirable Crichton (released in the United States as Paradise Lagoon) directed by Lewis Gilbert and featuring Kenneth More as Crichton and Cecil Parker as The Earl of Loam. I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis (so as not to spoil a great movie). The Admirable Crichton is currently on You Tube Click here for movie

The film, set at the turn of the Twentieth Century, takes place in two locations: in a London aristocratic household, a “haughty aristocratic English home with everyone kept in his place” and an uninhabited island in the South Seas. The aristocratic family escape a minor scandal involving the arrest of Earl Loam’s suffragette daughter by taking to the high Seas in the Earl’s yacht attended by his trusty butler, Crichton. They are shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. This is the story of how William Crichton, transitions from the “perfect servant” to servant leader and “Governor” of the island through his agile leadership abilities.

Agile leadership is defined in Bruna Martinuzz’s article The Agile Leader: Adaptibility
as “the ability to change (or be changed) to fit new circumstances”. Martinuzz references the Chinese proverb ‘the wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water moulds to the pitcher.’ In this highly technological and economically volatile global economy having an ability to quickly adjust to change and new circumstances is elevating up the ranks of essential modern leadership attributes and we can learn a lot about agile leadership and how to cultivate it through analysing The Admirable Chricton.

Chricton does seven things in the movie which firmly marks him out as an agile leader.

1. He serves the moment. In London, he is the “perfect servant” who knows his place and maintains strict hierarchy and professionalism; when the order is given to abandon ship, he is an outstanding crisis manager, ensuring everyone is safely evacuated from the sinking yacht; when they first arrive on the island he quickly assumes the role of survival coach, teaching the inept family some basics in survivalism; he is appointed the island’s governor and becomes an exemplary servant leader, creating organised structures and routines that serve the good of all; when they are rescued, he switches seamlessly back to being Earl Loam’s butler; at the end of the film, he leaves service and heads out with his new bride-to-be to start a life as an entrepreneur. In each of these different phases and roles, Chricton focuses on the moment and seeks to exercise a leadership that suits the circumstance.

2. He deprogrammes his conditioned behaviour. Upon first being shipwrecked, the family act and think through conditioned and automated behaviour – a mindset that Martinuzz considers the antithesis to adaptability and agile leadership. They look to their father, the Earl, for natural leadership; Crichton is instructed to “locate the nearest town or village, find some transport and bring it back”; they attach no importance to securing the boat which is their only means of escape assuming they will be rescued within hours; they order Chricton to rescue the dinner service from the yacht rather than any items of practical use; they insist on “going by the book” as Martinuzz calls it and try to light fires the way they read about it (“I read it somewhere”). Chricton, trained as a servant, quickly deprogrammes himself and faces the new reality. He re-conditions himself from being told what to do, to taking the initiative and acting instinctively without orders.

3. He faces reality. He tells it as it is – “we are not in England now, we are on a desolate island, hundreds of miles from anywhere and if we are not very careful, we are all going to die on it.” He injects a sense of realism by leaving them to fend for themselves for a while so that they quickly wake up to the stark reality of their situation. He couples this with the motivational words, “we can survive… with courage and good leadership.”

4. He breaks established rules, hierarchies and structures. “Fate,” as Crichton says in the film, “makes its own rules.” He becomes the Govenor (or “Gov”), The Earl becomes the Governor’s personal manservant and the ex-maid Tweeny becomes the most desirable young woman on the island. The Earl’s progressive ideas on social equality that he experiments with at the start of the movie are played out in full on the island where agile leadership and natural ability defines a hierarchy which has gone from aristocratic to meritocratic.

5. He adopts a learning mindset. The admirable Crichton has some basic skills that prove useful to him when they are first shipwrecked – his ability to swim, sew, create fire, cook, build shelter, etc. But he also has a learning mindset (“you never know what you can do until you try” he says at one point). He has managed and learned to organise a very comfortable existence for them including such things as hot running water, comfortable quarters, a home-made gramophone, cuckoo clocks, etc. As Martinuzz says “This willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone, and learn continuously as a way of adapting to changed surroundings, marks a key difference between successful and unsuccessful leaders.” It is this learning mindset that gives Crichton his leadership edge and not any form of positional power.

6. He maintains the vision. He keeps the vision of returning home firmly at the fore. There is a procedure for lighting the beacon in case a ship is sighted and he has designed a boat which they work on everyday to get them home. When he feels they are slacking, he address them all reiterating the central vision of the importance of returning back to civilisation. Being an agile and adaptive leader does not mean abandoning vision and goals – it means working toward a vision (the thing that is most important to the enterprise) in an agile, flexible and adaptive way.

7. He serves his followers. Crichton is the epitome of the servant leader. He is not trying to create status and authority for himself, he is trying to organise life on the island to help the others have a good and happy life. He frequently puts the needs of others before himself and his central philosophy is clearly to coach others to help themselves. This form of serving others and building empowerment through coaching is, of course, key to Robert Greenleaf’s model of Servant Leadership. In the movie they say to him at the celebratory dinner, “Thank you for teaching us happiness” to which he replies “If I have been the teacher, you as the pupils can all go to the top of the class.” When a ship is finally sighted after two years of being on the island, despite being the happiest he has ever been and on the verge of marrying Mary, he puts aside his personal interests and lights the beacon because he knows that is best for everyone. In a final act of leadership servitude, he voluntarily dresses in his butler uniform and serves refreshing drinks to the rescuers to protect the reputation of his people.

The notion of the natural born leader is challenged throughout this movie. Different circumstances call for different types of leadership. I often use the analogy of being stuck in a corporate lift which includes among its captives a company director and a maintenance man (two different extremes of the corporate hierarchy). Our automated response may be to look to the director for leadership; whereas, of course, it may well be the maintenance man who is best qualified to lead everyone to safety. The effective leader is the one who recognises this and can adapt to the many different challenges (a skill which is becoming increasingly essential in these fast-changing times). The Admirable Crichton gives some excellent pointers about how, as leaders, we can build our leadership agility and adaptability: we should serve the moment, deprogramme our conditioned behaviours, face the reality and inject a sense of reality in others, move away from established rules, hierarchies and structures that block progress, cultivate an ongoing learning mindset, keep the vision burning and always serve the needs and concerns of our followers.

Look out for further articles in this series.

Richard Kelly PhD.
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