Leadership Hacks From The Movie : Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan is one of those movies that we can watch a couple times and still feel like the first time. I would tread lightly on discussing the gore of war, but it is more than just a war movie. The depth of emotions that came with each scene is just a few of the ingredients that made it amongst the greats.

I still remember the first time watching it. There were no online streaming sites, Netflix was not around and the internet was primarily for business or education, so we did what any movie fan would do in the early part of 2000’s–rent a VHS. If you are unfamiliar of what that is, well…, you missed a good chunk of your life so Google it now. I just remembered we still have the old player in my family home, it would be good to advise them to keep it, that piece of technology could become antique.

Saving Private Ryan is a 1998 American epic war film directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Rodat. Set during the Invasion of Normandy in World War II, the film is known for its graphic portrayal of war, especially its depiction of the Omaha Beach assault during the Normandy landings. The film follows United States Army Rangers Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad (Tom SizemoreEdward BurnsBarry PepperGiovanni RibisiVin DieselAdam Goldberg, and Jeremy Davies) as they search for a paratrooperPrivate first class James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), the last surviving brother of four, the three other brothers having been killed in action. (Wikipedia)

The internet has volumes to say about the film. From behind-the-scenes stories, to trivia, to how Spielberg played with paradoxes. This article, however, will focus on some simpler perspectives, which is finding coroporate lessons that we can take away from the movie.

War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lesson 1 : Teams Need A Common Goal

In any organization, from the ground to the highest echelon of corporate structure, teams are seldom built by the leaders that will be at the helm. Frequently, leaders inherit teams. To have a part in building an entirely new team, collecting a preferred selection of talents, is a priviledge, not a lot of young leaders in today’s coporate context get the chance to (so if you have, count yourself lucky)

In the context that we will employing scenes from a war movie and relating it to coporate leadership, perhaps, it is safe to assume that just like in the military, especially in that of World War II; where units must be made and gathered to work seamless almost overnight, it is not unfair for organizations to ask their leaders to jive, mesh and integrate into their inherited or newly-built teams in the shortest time possible.

After all, the business world, would not have read Sun Tzu, if we cannot relate how they feel and think everyday to war (no pun intended).

The current challenge is, which is most likely a serious strain also since back then, is that teams need time to trust each other–which is fundemantal to any cooperation, collaboration and teamwork. Every team, is made up of diverse individuals with varying backgrounds, beliefs, experiences, personalities and preference. To expect them to simply be united in a matter of weeks or months, is a steep order indeed. Weirdly, how much time is needed, is yet to be fiured out–we just know, deep inside, that it needs time. Somewhere between a month, ideally, but no more than an eternity.

Team performance, unlike what most would think, is not simply a question of leadership. The success of any team goes far beyond education, experience and competency–of the individual members and the leader.

When a group of individuals are clustered together, may it be in a confined space or the proverbial boat, differences will arise. This is what we exactly see in the move as the unit received the order of going ahead to the frontlines, away from the from the action, to recover a Private named James Ryan. Yes, even a seasoned team that had been in many death-defying missions still disagree, argue and fight internally.

A compelling scene of how team dynamics really work and how leadership plays a crucial role in guiding talented individuals, is when the unit encounters a machine gun nest defended by an isolated crew of German soldiers.

Order, though, in his manner of communicating, proposing that the unit takes the machine gun nest down, Captain Miller was met with varied opinions and objections. The more prevalent ones being that, that it is needeless to take it down, that incoming forces can deal with them with the minority vote on taking it down so it will not be able to ambush others.

Saving Priate Ryan, Unit Huddle, Movie Scene
Unit discusses, then argues need to take down machine gun nest.

Imagine that! Battle-hardened soldiers, who earlier, had just been so frustrated to not see action, was now avoiding, what they considered to be needless conflict. We can only imagine, how peculiary frustrating it must have been for the Captain, but this is where leadership in the process of building teams come to life.

Seeing the hestitation and hearing the obviously selfish recommendations; Captain Miller demonstrates a lesson in what is right and leadership by initiating all preparations and even spearheading the attack.

In moments of hesitation, where teams break down as individuals, it is the leaders who cement trust, confidence and purpose. The best line ever said on the scene perhaps was the captain telling the boys, the objective has not changed, the objective is to win the war. A fine lesson in redireting teams towards something that will unite diversity in moments of discord–a relatable and sensibile goal.

Lesson 2 : The Burden Of Leadership Is Heavy

Someone said something about leaders being the ones to climb the tree to update everyone that we are in the wrong forest or something to that effect. For whatever its worth and the actual line is, whether it was Jack Welsch or John Maxwell who said it, it speaks true of the heavy burden of leadership.

Take for example the scene in the movie after the taking of the bunker. Neutralizing a dig fortified with machine guns and heavy artillery did not come easy nor without casualty. Their doctor died, in one of the most emotional scenes of the movies. It is easy to assume that after dealing death and seeing so much, people can just get used to it, but perhaps not. After seeing the soldier through his last moments, the Captain hides to shed tears of sorrow, regret and perhaps guilt. One can only imagine the feeling of losing someone in your command.

Just when you feel sorry for the Captain in the scene and you want to give him respite, he goes back to his unit and finds them arguing about what to do with the captured German soldiers. Do they kill them to ensure that they no longer participate in the war? Or should they let them go following the rules of the Geneva convention, and being that the nature of their mission cannot accomodate holding on to captives? Alot of viewers take this to be a discussion of morality, yet to this humble spectator, what struck me was how the Captain got everyone to harken togehter again as a team.

While everyone was almost pointing guns at each other due to the argument, the Captain takes on a bet that everyone had been having about what he did before joining the war. He asks how much the bet is on and shares that he used to be a teacher and how his decision is not entirely hinged now on what is right or wrong based on the articles of war, but on how he feels that every life he/they take, perhaps needelessly, makes him feel farther and farther away from home. It drove a point to everyone and what was just a heated argument a few seconds earlier, turned cold and everyone just had a reverberating resonance to the lines.

That is the burden of leadership; to cry and be unmoved; to suffer and stay calm, to be confused and yet confident, to be hope, when at times there seem to be none, and to be the epithet of what is right, ideal and good–because teams do not just look for success, much more than many care to admit, teams look for mearning in what they do.

Lesson 3 : Be Like Captain Miller

The movies starts with an elderly man kneeling at the resting place of who we are then introduced as Captain Miller. Miller and Ryan, did not know each other for long, they only spent weeks together in the most unlikely of situations. Yet, the effect Captain Miller had to Ryan was so profound that even after many years, up until his age of white hair, he still held the Captain in such high regard, enough that he would ask him if he had earned it (the last word’s the Captain uttered to him before dying, were, earn it)

Taken into such context, maybe, just maybe, the hallmark of leadership is to leave an indelible positive mark on the lives of others.

A tall and idealistic notion, which is absolutely easier said than done, but not impossible.

Just how did Captain Miller leave an mark on Private Ryan, though?

This article would like to claim that it was the Captain’s selflessness; his willingness to put the need of others before his, and his readiness to sacrifice so others can advance; be safe and progress–that made him unforgettable to the young Private.

Leaders of today juggle an extremely difficult role.

They are to ensure team efficiency in functioning for enteprise success and at the same time, accomodate the individual nuances and circumstances of each member. To leaders, young and old, who have people in their charge and care, these two must come first and second; to the expense of their own needs coming third (that is, if they are single, imagine where it lands if they have spouses, kids and other family members to care for).

It is absolutely exhausting, just imagining it, yet to a true leader, this is the source of fulfilment. True enough, Captain Miller dies in the movie, but knowing that he had ensured that safety of Private Ryan, he passed away, with the look of someone fulfilled. He had mentioned earlier, that every person he kills makes him feel farther away from home, this time, he helped someone get home and for whatever its worth; amidst everything–he felt closer to home.

Capt. Miller encourages Pvt. Ryan to live, tasking him to, “Earn It”.

If you are one of those leaders, who are selfless in helping their teams continually contribute to enterprise success while genuinely supporting the personal career advancement of those in you care–you deserve all the love and recognition!

Yes, the road must have been hard and will only get tougher. But your selfless attitude and fine behavior, amidst any and all circumstance, in every interaction with your team as whole and individually; will and is making ripples that improve human society, in its own little, but no less powerful way.

That time helped a new colleague finish his work, because he had just started at the expense of you staying longer in the office; that instance when you covered for a single mother who could not make it work to tend to her child even if you had to come in earlier to work on your items; that time when you genuinely thanked someone for their hard work; and most importantly that time when you made everyone feel that they are all valued, cared for and appreciated even if you had not been made to feel so yourself–is perhaps, how leaders can be like Captain Miller and leave an indelible positive effect on the lives of others.

Leadership Hacks from Erwin Smith (Attack on Titans)

It was somewhere around 2014 when a young, impressionable, lost and confused me, found an article on Forbes that will shape the way I will view motion pictures since.

I always knew that movies were communicating something, but never had I imagined so much wisdom drawn out from such references like Star Trek, Batman and Star Wars. It was so unique , so insightful–that I spent the night reconsidering almost every movie I had seen.

The theme of the articles were primarily about leadership which I appreciated to a certain extent,

I was in organizational development at that time, but it was only in later years that the true meaning of it made so much practical sense. At that time at least at a theoritical and conceptual standpoint I understood the information being shared, but it was not until six long years that the words came to life and with some powerful resonance.

Regardless of what industry you work for or the number of people in your team, the concept of good leadership is universal. Somehow it is intrinsically embedded in our psyche and closely linked to our own internal compass to determine what good leadership looks like and what phony is. The situations, decisions and growing pains any leader will have to hurdle are, and I am making a controversial claim here, equally important, challenging and life-defining.

So, you may not be fighting Titans in a fictional world like Erwin Smith is, but we can all certainly draw lessons from his leadership. For this piece, I had gleaned three leadership lessons we can all learn from Erwin Smith, Commander of The Survey Corps.

Erwin Smith, encouraging his Survey Corps through the gesture of giving hearts for the cause

While not all of us had the chance to be tutored by commendable leaders, I have been lucky to be in the care of some for most of my career. Looking back, I did not necessarily have the means to eloquently explain why I felt so, until recently. Not more than five years ago, I started having a team in my care and truthfully, you will always think you had it in the bag until it starts swallowing you from the ground up. I will not be ashamed to state that you will have moments of confidence, then doubts and ultimately confusion. You were of course, good at what you do, but how do you influence other people. How did you get influenced by those who led your team?

The question seemed so easy, but not everything that is based on human perception is black and white and can be easily explained. The accessibility of leadership videos, books and schools of thought, organizations and institutions will feed you that it is unthinkable for young leaders to not hit the ground running. Leadership, however, at least for me, was not something that can be learned through study, training or formal education alone and I never hit the ground running, not closely nor without pains. It is an acquired taste, fermented by experience and seasoned with time. A daunting task, of which, you have all the resources, but so few certainties.

If there is any great example of leadership we can all learn from, perhaps it can be from Erwin. With all certainty, leading people to fight against gigantic human-eating monsters is no easy task. How did Erwin do it?

Lesson 1: Leaders Lead

In Season 3, Part 2, Episode 54, titled “Hero”, Erwin leads a suicidal attack against one of the nine Titans. As leaders, we may not necessarily need to lead a head on attack that leads to certain death, but we have every opportunity to lead those in our care towards success. Those in our care expect us to bite the dust first, take the first hit, should anything go wrong and lead on. Of course, those words are quite morbid still, but what is implied is that in all levels of leadership, small or large following–leaders have the responsibility, privilege and obligation to not just go first, but take the lead. If we had instances where we had to throw people, other departments or the system under the bus, we can learn so much from how Erwin has focused all his energies around making his corps succeed amidst similar if not more complicated and corrupt inner workings.

Lesson 2: Leaders Inspire

In the corporate world of today, the competency of leadership had been measured by performance. Had Erwin been an employee of today, he would have been fired a long time ago. The series indicates that the Survey Corps has never been the choice of graduating cadets due to its high attrition, high effort and low success rate. In fact, they were so unpopular that they could barely remember having the people send them off for a long time. Before the discover of Eren’s powers, the corps had nothing, but failures on the record.

Still, you will find really powerful and smart individuals, like Levi and Hanji stick with Erwin. Translate that to employees of today who move out upon sensing that the team they are part of is not popular or difficult and they will start moving out, transferring to another team or worse resign. So how then, does Erwin retain top talent, those who we can certainly consider as the best in the realm? Inspiration.

Erwin, like all great leaders is grounded on a core belief, that even the most dire of consequences and ends cannot shake. He builds his action plans around that core belief and moves around it when necessary. That alone is inspiring. We all want to believe in something, but many of us doubt that belief and eventually just go with the bandwagon. Seeing someone firmly believe in something even unto death is remarkably charismatic.

Lesson 3: Leaders Define Success

Talking about the corps failures and Erwin totally not passing his probation in the real world makes us curious how he still holds much influence even to successfully convince people to his side on a coup de’t tat. In today’s jobs, requesting for more funds, resources or support from the organisations becomes a little steep if you had too little success to show and all the more to get the sentiment and support of other departments.

So how then did Erwin still have the ears of the other Commanders? While all the others thought of practical applications to their force, he anchored the success of the corps to an ideology. While many will argue this to be detrimental to business, which can actually bet true, the Survey Corps did not have really much of a choice. They were tasked to do what no one had done and that by definition kind of categorizes that task between improbable leaning more on impossible.

Erwin knew that the conventional meaning of success would only drag the sentiment of people and the morale of his soliders, so he had to define success differently. Every person inside the walls knew that it was nearly, if not totally impossible for humanity to venture out the walls, but he knew everyone dreamt of being out. That intrinsic human quality to hope was all that Erwin needed to continually rekindle to make his corps relevant and keep the confidence of his people and his influence amongst the higher-ups.

You may lose your job if you do so today, but then again, young leaders of today are not tasked to survey fields at the risk of being eaten. We all sit comfortably at our stations with proper ventilation and fast computers, so there really is no excuse to settle down the basic goals of our key performance indicators and tie up success to an ideal state where one does not need to be afraid with perfection, because none had achieved it yet.

Leaders have a huge responsibility. Your decisions and better judgment do not just impact the team, organisation and business. It also directly affects the lives of the people in your care, which ultimately sums up to an obligation to humanity and its betterment, especially in the years to come post COVID-19.