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Fire service leaders, let’s go to the movies

Eight great movies with important leadership lessons for the fire service

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Movies can be a great escape – and why not get some relaxing movie time while you also learn some leadership skills? (Photo/Flickr

As we work to navigate these difficult times since the emergence of the pandemic in 2020, many first responders may be looking for a moment away from the chaos and the constant news.

Movies can be a great escape – and why not get some relaxing movie time while you also learn some leadership skills? It is amazing how many movies have entertainment value while providing leadership lessons.

Here are some of my favorite movies (in no particular order) that can help enhance your leadership skills. Look for them on your local cable providers, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO and many other streaming subscription services.

1. “Kingdom of Heaven”

In “Kingdom of Heaven,” Balian of Ibelin is nothing but a blacksmith, but he finds himself traveling to Jerusalem during the Crusades of the 12th century. Eventually he finds himself in charge of the defense of Jerusalem and its people. Not only does he have to use military tactics in defense of the city, but he also finds himself several times in a position where he must motivate the defenders within the city and lead from the front. In the end, he successfully negotiates the surrender of Jerusalem with the goal of saving the people within.

One of my favorite scenes in “Kingdom of Heaven” is when Balian converts a simple servant into a knight by saying, “Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Safeguard the helpless. Never lie, even if it leads to your death; that is your oath.” The Bishop of Jerusalem then asks Balian, “Who do you think you are? Will you alter the world? Does making a man a knight make him a better fighter? Balian pauses and then slowly turns slowly to the face the Bishop and says, “Yes.” The look on the face of the newly converted knight is extraordinary. This is how a leader motivates those underneath them.

2. “Braveheart”

Like Kingdom of Heaven, “Braveheart” is another movie that thrusts an unknown person into a new leadership position. Mel Gibson portrays William Wallace who has the vision of having a free Scotland, independent of British tyranny. Wallace is a good example of a servant leader who feels his leadership position exists to serve the people of Scotland by giving them freedom. Long ago, most people fought in battles because their land barons required them to fight to keep their jobs, house and the land they worked. In Wallace’s case, he motivates his countrymen to fight for a single cause of freedom. His only failure in the movie was motivating the nobles to rally around his cause, as they were mainly concerned with their self-interest.

3. “Thirteen Days”

I lived through this critical period in history as a 5-year-old child when the Soviet Union and the United States went nose-to-nose over nuclear weapons in Cuba. I was too young to understand what was happening, but I still have memories of my parents talking about it at the kitchen table and what we would do if nuclear missiles were launched. Inexplicably, drills of getting under a table or desk were designed so you’d feel safe from nuclear weapons.

Thirteen Days” takes you through the decision-making process that President John F. Kennedy faced during a critical 13-day period when the United States drew a line in the sand and wanted the Soviet Union to dismantle the nuclear weapons they were assembling in Cuba. During this 13-day period, Kennedy faced tough decisions while combating the war hawks in his administration and the military leaders who wanted to go to war over Cuba. Eventually, the Soviet Union backed down and agreed to withdraw nuclear weapons from Cuba.

4. “Twelve O’Clock High”

Twelve O’Clock High” is a World War II movie that probably has better leadership lessons than most leadership books. The movie centers on a general who takes over a bombing squadron that has had terrible luck, is suffering from low morale, and has high casualties. The leadership lesson I took away from this movie focuses on not micromanaging but rather providing your team with autonomy to make decisions. You show them the end goal by clearly stating the objectives and setting a path to the goal. The first few successes provide confidence for your team.

5. “Remember the Titans”

Besides watching the movie “Remember the Titans,” I had an opportunity to listen to the real Coach Herman Boone and Coach Bill Yoast give a talk on leadership at an IAFC Fire-Rescue International conference some years ago. It was clear from their personalities why they succeeded from the challenges of taking a newly desegregated high school football team and turning into a state champion the first year. Tensions were high in 1971 in Alexandria, Virginia, as the school board closed one white and one black high school to create an integrated school. Coach Boone, who is black, is chosen to head the football team over Coach Yoast, who is white and who many considered to be the better coach. The movie shows how Boone and Yoast worked together to integrate a team where hostilities were initially high, but they were eventually molded into a team that succeeded on the field.

6. “Apollo 13”

With “Apollo 13,” we have another movie where I had the opportunity to listen to a key player at a Fire-Rescue International conference. Gene Kranz, who was the flight director for the failed Apollo 13 moon mission finds himself in a precarious position to get three American astronauts safely back to earth after an explosion aboard their spacecraft causes them to abort trying to land on the moon. Kranz provides the leadership during the crisis and leads his team to successfully return the three astronauts back to earth. Some of his notable quotes from the movie include, “Work the problem, people,” “We’ve never lost an American in space, we’re sure as [heck] not going to lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option,” “I don’t care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do,” and when the NASA director said that this could be the worst disaster in the history of NASA, Kranz cut him off and said, “With all due respect, sir, I think this is going to be our finest hour.”

7. “Saving Private Ryan”

In “Saving Private Ryan,” Tom Hanks plays Captain John Miller. The movie is an excellent example of leadership during crisis, brotherhood and sacrifice. What is even more interesting is that Captain John Miller was a schoolteacher from Pennsylvania before the war. I was always curious how a schoolteacher could transform from one profession into the leadership of another position that is much more intense, where so many lives depend upon his decisions. But nonetheless, in the movie, he keeps his squad focused on the single mission of finding Private Ryan.

8. “The Godfather”

Yes, even all three of the Godfather movies can provide leadership lessons. In order to be a successful leader, you need to be strategic in your thinking and planning. Many of the themes in the Godfather movies continually show Don Corleone and then Michael Corleone managing their multi-million crime operations. While managing their operations, they must deal with conflict from other mafia families while planning ahead, being resilient, and be able to have contingency plans from the original plan is sidetracked – all things we find ourselves doing as chief officers.

Your turn …

What are your favorite leadership movies? Email me your suggestions. In the meantime, I’ll have my popcorn, catching up on my latest leadership movie.

This article, originally published in April 2020, has been updated.

Gary Ludwig
Gary Ludwig

Gary Ludwig is the former fire chief of the ISO Class 1 Champaign (Illinois) Fire Department. He is past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, having concluded his term in August 2020. Ludwig started his career with the City of St. Louis at age 18, rising through the ranks and retiring as the chief paramedic of the St. Louis Fire Department after 25 years of service. He has also served 10 years as a deputy fire chief for the Memphis Fire Department. Ludwig previously served on the EMS Executive Board for the IAFC for 22 years, with six years as chair. He has a master’s degree in business and management, and has been a licensed paramedic for over 39 years. Ludwig has written over 500 articles for almost every professional publication in the fire and EMS profession. He has also been invited to speak at over 250 professional EMS and fire conferences or seminars. His latest book is titled “Fully Involved Leadership.” Ludwig has won numerous awards, including those for heroism, the James O. Page EMS Leadership Award (2014) and the IAFC EMS Section’s James O. Page Achievement Award (2018). He is a member of the FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Ludwig on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.