Leadership in the Movies:
Invictus and Hoosiers

Leading Change

leading change

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 select movies. Today we are going to look at two movies inspired by true stories and set in a sports context where the central theme is leading change; specifically, overcoming resistance to change.

One of the most widely used models on dealing with resistance to change comes from leadership and change professor, John Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger. Writing in The Harvard Business Review, they produced a seminal article, Choosing Strategies for Change, which presents a diagnosis and model of resistance to change which is as relevant today as it was thirty-five years ago when it was first published. In this article, the authors convey how human resistance is a natural reaction to any imposed change because oftentimes people are in a state of uncertainty and emotional turmoil. Resistance, Kotter and Schlesinger analyse, chiefly comes about because of fear: fear that things are going to be worse; fear of personal loss in status, power, authority etc.; fear that embracing change is an admission that previous decisions/beliefs were wrong; fear to re-skill and change behaviours to suit the new modus operandi.

They propose six strategies for dealing with resistance.


When a leader’s drive for change is resisted there are a number of strategies they can adopt to manage the resistance depending on the unique situation they find themselves in. If the fear for change is due to lack of information/fear of the unknown and there are no major time constraints, change leaders may consider an education/communication programme to inform resisters and/or seek to involve the resisters in some aspect of the design/implementation of the change; these strategies, though time consuming, help to create buy-in. If the fear for change is due to people not being able to adjust and there are no major time constraints, change leaders may look to facilitate and support resisters through skill-building, listening and understanding. If the resistance is politically motivated because of fear of loss of status or control, the change leader may seek to negotiate and form agreements with the resisters to ensure the change goes through. If time is pressing and the change leader has limited power/authority, s/he may consider manipulation/co-opotation as a viable strategy where they gain support/buy-in by use of selective information or offering key resisters roles and responsibility in the new order. If time is pressing and the change leader has strong power/authority, they may consider explicit/implicit coercion as a strategy where they explicitly or implicitly force people to change by threatening, stonewalling, silencing or dismissing resisters. Manipulation and coercion are clearly high-risk strategies that could backfire and stall the change process.

These strategies are neatly summarised in the following table reproduced from Kotter and Schlesinger’s article.


Let’s now look at two movies that throw further light on how some of these strategies work in action. I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis so as not to spoil a great movie.

Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood and staring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon tells the story of Nelson Mandela transitioning South Africa from racial division (following apartheid) to a rainbow nation portrayed through the lens of the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted in South Africa. Released from prison in 1990, Mandela goes on to be elected the first black president. There is much resistance, fear, distrust and division in the country from both the black and white communities. Mandela, who values inspiration as a leadership tool, seeks to unite the nation and overcome the divisions and resistance to change through the inspiration of the South African rugby team, the Springboks. He challenges a decision to change the colours and name of the Springboks team (because of its association with many years of white oppression) signalling his appetite for reconciliation and unity. The team’s success in the World Cup, brings the nation together (“one team one country”).

Resistance to change is echoed throughout the movie; it is evident in the white community resisting the new regime, in the white presidency staff who are packing when Mandela arrives at his office, in the Springboks’ reluctance to embrace the new South Africa (François Pienaar tells the team “we’ve become more than just a rugby team and we might as well get used to it… times change, and we need to change as well”), it is even evident in Mandela’s own personal security team where the new security head, Jason Tshabalala, resists the appointment of white colleagues to the team. Nelson Mandela deals with this resistance through education, participation and facilitation (the first three strategic approaches in Kotter and Schlesinger’s model for dealing with resistance to change).

Education and Communication
Mandela seeks to lead and educate through example. In one of his meetings with Captain François Pienaar, he asks “What is your philosophy on leadership? How do you inspire your team to do their best?” Pienaar responds, “By example. I’ve always thought to lead by example.” “That’s right,” Mandela responds. Mandela seeks to unite the nation by setting an example of forgiveness and reconciliation. “When people see me in public”, he teachers his head of security, “they see my body guards. You represent me directly. The rainbow nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here… forgiveness starts here too. Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear, that is why it is such a powerful weapon.” Through example and teaching the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, he inspires others. Pienaar reflects to his girlfriend, “he spent 30 years in a tiny cell and came out ready to forgive the people who put him there.” Mandela puts into a place a national education programme of coaching clinics where the players go to the townships and teach the local kids rugby. This initiative is initially resisted by the players who see it as squeeze on their time.

Participation and involvement
Mandela gets personally involved in the day-to-day decision making. One poignant moment comes when the executive council vote to outlaw the Springboks name and colours. Mandela drops everything to overturn this decision. His senior political advisor cautions against his personal intervention because it “gives the impression of autocratic leadership”, but Mandela stands firm and addresses the executive directly:

Brothers, sisters, comrades: I am here because I believe you have made a decision with insufficient information and foresight. I am aware of your earlier vote. I am aware that it was unanimous. Nonetheless, I believe we should restore the Springboks; restore their name, their emblem and their colours, immediately. Let me tell you why. On Robben Island, in Pollsmoor Prison, all of my jailers were Afrikaners. For 27 years, I studied them. I learned their language, read their books, their poetry. I had to know my enemy before I could prevail against him. And we DID prevail, did we not? All of us here… we prevailed. Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner. They are our fellow South Africans, our partners in democracy. And they treasure Springbok rugby. If we take that away, we lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be. We have to be better than that. We have to surprise them with compassion, with restraint and generosity; I know, all of the things they denied us. But this is no time to celebrate petty revenge. This is the time to build our nation using every single brick available to us, even if that brick comes wrapped in green and gold. You elected me your leader. Let me lead you now.

His direct involvement results in the decision to reinstate the name and colours of Springboks, colours that Mandela himself proudly wears in the final game of the championship.

Facilitation and support
Mandela sees the rugby world cup as an opportunity to unite the nation and he facilitates this and makes it happen. He personally supports/endorses François Pienaar’s captaincy by encouraging him to be ambitious and “win the world cup” (despite the negativity by sports commentators). He helps Pienaar understand what leadership means and shares with him a Victorian poem, Invictus, which inspired him in the prison. Pienaar’s confidence grows with the support of Mandela which relays to the team and the confidence of the nation.

Over the term of his presidency, through the strategies of education, personal intervention and support, Mandela helps to shape attitudes. This is visually depicted in the movie: images of racial division that are presented at the start of the movie are replaced by more positive images of blacks and whites living and working together as they begin to realise Mandela’s vision of a “rainbow nation”. This is exemplified in Mandela’s personal security team who learn to respect each other through, among other things, playing rugby in the car park. We also see a shift of attitude from the white community toward appreciating and respecting Mandela as an individual.

The other movie, Hoosiers, directed by David Anspaugh and staring Gene Hackman as Coach Dale, is a story of disgraced national basketball coach, Norman Dale, looking to make a fresh start as a highschool coach in the rural Indiana town of Hickory. The townsfolk are passionate about the game and have fixed ideas how it should be coached. With only two weeks before the season starts, he quickly sets about training the team. His coaching approach attracts criticism and resistance from the conservative townfolk/players. He deals with this cohesively by putting disobedient players on the bench or dismissing them and banning the townsfolk from practices and the locker room. Despite a shaky start to the season, he builds a strong relationship with the team and they go on to win the state championship.

Coach Dale’s approach to dealing with the resistance is to use explicit and implicit coercion. He receives resistance from the townsfolk who tell him: “this town doesn’t like change much, so we thought we’d get together here tonight and show you how we do things around here.” He deals with this implicitly by simply ignoring them – “Gentlemen,” he says, “ it’s been real nice talking with you. Goodnight.” When they become more vociferous, he uses explicit coercion by banning them from practice and the locker room. Resistance also comes from the acting coach who is teaching them zone defence, “Look mister,” he says, “these boys got a routine they’re used to… you throw a new coach and new fangled ideas at them, it might get them all confused… we’ll ease into it real slowly … “ Coach Dale’s response is classic explicit coercion, dismissing him on the spot: “First of all, let’s be real friendly here… my name is Norm. Secondly, your coaching days are over.” The players also resist the coach – they talk back to him and go against his strategy during play. He deals with this in a no-nonsense manner: even though he has few players, he kicks a player out for disobedience, telling him “Don’t come back until you can learn to keep your mouth shut and listen.” He also dramatically benches one of his players for going against the strategy even though that decision cost them the game. Coach Dale’s approach is high-risk causing player walk-outs, lost games and a community that attempts to dismiss him; clearly, however, he assesses that change is necessary to win and with limited time, an explicit and implicit coercion is the only way to counter the resistance from the community and deal with the “raw and undisciplined” players – in the words of Coach Dale: “I’m gonna break em down and build em back up.”

Both movies concern leaders who successfully dealt with resistance to a new order. Both adopted different strategies to suit their unique circumstance. Mandela was in office five years and had a large black followship. He used education (including role modelling)/communication, participation/involvement and facilitation/support to deal with the resistance. Coach Dale had only a few weeks to become established and with only the High school Principal as his supporter. He used explicit and implicit coercion to deal with the player/townsfolk resistance to change. Both are leading change and not simply managing it; the definition, here of leading change is to:-

have a clear vision of what you want (Mandela wants a rainbow nation, Coach Dale wants the boys to play to their maximum potential)

identify the resistance (examine what Kotter and Schlesinger refer to as the “situational factors” – the context, influence, motivation and stakes)

choose a clear strategy to drive the change through

Implications for the workplace
Articles such as Taking control of uncertainty is the biggest leadership challenge constantly remind us that we are living in uncertain times “Taking control of uncertainty is the fundamental leadership challenge of our time. In the last 10 years, the global landscape has become unstable”, writes Ankita Rai. Miguel Simoes de Melo writes in How businesses can win in unstable times

Finding a way to sustain profits and reach full potential amid a constantly shifting landscape is increasingly the central challenge in every market. The companies that make the future–not just take it.

Change and innovation is critical for modern organisations to flourish and survive; but as Kotter and Schlesinger are quick to point out (via a citation from Machavelli), implementing change is not easy: “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” Strong and capable leadership is required to drive the change (to have a clear vision, a good understanding of the situational factors and a decisive strategy). That is why it is so difficult, because it requires mastery in all the main leadership competences (personal mastery, interpersonal/engagement skills, influencing skills, strategic/systemic thinking, being adaptive… the list goes on). These two movies serve to inspire and give real-life examples about how leaders have successfully dealt with resistance to change through a clear and choiceful strategic approach that has taken into account the situational factors.

Look out for further articles in this series.

Richard Kelly PhD.
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