Leadership Lessons in Purpose from the Silver Screen

Executives faced with the reality of leading change have much to learn from the performing arts. In this article we compare the role of the CEO to that of a film director.

Take a look at this photograph of Francis Ford Coppola with Marlon Brando on the set of “The Godfather”.


Imagine the underlying tensions. At this stage, nobody knew that the film would become an all-time cinema classic. Brando was at the top of his game, one of the most enigmatic characters Hollywood had ever seen. Coppola was a young man of thirty-three, clearly talented but with little track record. The budget was large and the stakes were high. Neither man could contemplate a box-office failure.

As director it was Coppola who held the initial vision for the movie and Brando who had to buy into it. Both men would have had their own interpretation of the script, but Coppola carried the ultimate responsibility for the film’s success or failure. He was the boss. But in truth Coppola had little positional power over Brando. Somehow he had to build enough trust to allow his star actor to deliver a great performance, while staying true to his own artistic vision.

At the same time Coppola had to organize the whole enterprise of making the film, mobilize the army of skilled people needed to realize the technical production, stay within his budget and deadlines and keep the rest of the cast of temperamental actors not only pointing in the same direction but performing to the best of their abilities. He later recounted “The Godfather was a very unappreciated movie at the time. The studio was very unhappy with it. They didn’t like the cast. They didn’t like the way I was shooting it. I was always on the verge of getting fired. When it was all over I wasn’t at all confident that it was going to be successful, and that I’d ever get another job”.

But does this show in the picture? What we appear to see are two great artists surrounded by their acolytes, in discussion and focused on the finer points of the scene at hand.

We are convinced that the secret to managing these many underlying and extraordinary tensions lies, in film as in business, in understanding the connection between vision, strategy and action or, more simply, to combine the “why”, the “how” and the “what”. Simon Sinek’s classic You-Tube hit ” the power of why” points to a powerful insight, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it“.  But in film, as in life, this is only part of the story. All three elements are needed and have to be balanced and integrated to create a great production.

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

WHY: Coppola’s first challenge was to win the hearts of his players, and above all that of Brando, to his own artistic vision for the film. He had to find the right balance between imposing an authoritarian prescription and engaging the creative forces of his team in finding a collective vision that they all could own. Every leader has to strike this balance, some in a more directive way than others.

HOW: He then had to define and communicate the broad strategy for realizing this vision. Again, there is no general rule about how participative or directive this process should be, as it is always dependent on the nature of the leader and qualities of the team. But to work effectively, every member of the cast and crew needed a clear understanding of the broad strategic guidelines for the film.

WHAT: Lastly, he had to design every individual scene in such a way to get the most out of his players. Each director creates his own style, some highly directive of every aspect of the performance while others allowing more latitude to the actors to interpret the role themselves. But every single member of the cast and crew, from the star to the last name on the long list of functions at the end of the film, has to know the purpose of their actions.

Indeed it is the ability to diagnose at which of the three levels to focus that distinguishes great directors and, we would argue, great business leaders. Directors such as Coppola hold an integrated view of all three levels and seem to know instinctively at which level to act at any given moment in order to re-energize and to redirect efforts towards the shared goal. This may be at the individual or collective level. But the key lies in judging whether a disagreement or misunderstanding at the “what” level has its roots in the “how” or the “why”, or whether it is just a technical issue. A cast or a business team will swiftly be weary of a leader who constantly and superfluously reminds them of the “why” when they are just trying to get things done. But to focus at the level of tasks when the root of the problem lies in a misunderstanding or miscommunication at another level is to invite failure. An inspiring director will fine tune the corrections at each level to ensure that every cast member knows not only what they have to do, but why and how. As the project progresses, the balance between these three levels will change. The successful leader will be constantly watching the behavior of the team and directing their own interventions at the level dictated by their needs.

An inspiring director will fine tune the corrections at each level to ensure that every cast member knows not only what they have to do, but why and how.

The parallels between the role of the film director and that of a CEO in guiding an organization through a change process are clear. True, the time scale in a business may be longer, the organization larger and more complex and the passions of the staff harder to ignite. But the CEO can learn much from watching how a great artistic director balances the “why”, the “how” and the “what” to create an acclaimed production.*


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*I wrote this article with my good friend, James Parker. James Parker is Visiting Faculty at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), co-founder of the Parma Consulting Group, and a specialist in strategy and organization. At RSM James teaches on the open programme ‘The Strategy Consultants’ Approach to Problem Solving’ and Leadership of Professional Service Firms’ as well as on customized in-company programs for clients in the financial and legal sectors. James gained an MA in Russian Language and Modern History from Oxford University, and has an MBA from Insead. He has been resident in the Netherlands since 1992 and is fluent in English, French, Russian, and Dutch.You can reach James at parker@parmaconsulting.nl and visit his website http://www.parmagroup.nl.

Speaker - Audience Galvanizer - Experiential Learning Practitioner - Executive Coach Rob combines two decades of experience as a top leadership development executive with a well-established career in the performing arts. As Founder & President of Protagonist Consulting Group, Rob lives his passion for building long lasting client relationships and leading executives through transformational learning experiences. He has an exceptional ability for creating a space for others to discover and grow, enhance their presence, connect authentically with others, and tell compelling stories. You can reach Rob at robsalafia@protagonistconsulting.com

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