A Fresh Approach to Leadership Training

This novel use of popular movies to teach leadership skills has proven successful.

A Fresh Approach to Leadership Training

The challenge in conducting leadership training is that leaders consider themselves to be “above average.” If they were not already adequate leaders, after all, they would never have been put in positions of authority in the first place, right?

Sadly, the answer is no. Effective leadership is, perhaps, one of the most important yet difficult and elusive skills for any person in authority to master. Leadership depends on followership, and one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to motivating or understanding others. Money may motivate a young officer, trying to buy a house, more than it will a senior officer whose material needs are mostly met.

Further, where one works within the department or organization will affect the type and amount of information one receives, so people will calculate costs and benefits differently, resulting in divergent perspectives on priorities and courses of action. Creating unity of purpose and action amidst different perspectives is a thorny challenge for a leader.

Last, but certainly not least is the interpretation of communications, both verbal and non-verbal, that vary with age, culture, gender and myriad other factors.

The problem with leadership training is people don’t think they need it, and asking people to delve into abstract issues such as Emotional Intelligence and Personality Types is often resisted as sterile and boring enterprises. Providing simpler guidelines, such as the U.S. Marine Corps Leadership Principles, is useful but people need to see them in action to internalize them.

Let’s Go to the Movies, and Pass the Popcorn

There are any number of movies that illustrate the finer points of leadership, especially in difficult situations. War movies such as “Twelve O’clock High,” “The Lost Battalion,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “Band of Brothers,” “Gettysburg” and “Fury” illustrate important points such as various leadership styles, along with their strengths and weaknesses; the development of goals and implementation of strategies to achieve them; making courageous decisions in difficult circumstances; motivation; conflict de-escalation; discipline; developing unit cohesion; communication strategies; and dealing with stress.

There are many non-martial movies that explore the same issues. These movies include “12 Angry Men,” “The Lifeboat,” “Remember the Titans,” “Crimson Tide,” “The Lord of the Flies” and “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

While these movies address the general areas noted above, they also delve into specific topics and offer unique insights into leadership challenges. For instance, “Twelve O’clock High” addresses the following key issues:

“12 Angry Men” illustrates different issues, including:

  • The art of persuasion
  • Ethics
  • The value of skepticism
  • Dealing with expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies
  • Avoiding “groupthink”
  • Defusing anger
  • Non-verbal communications

Finally, “The Caine Mutiny” deals with topics such as:

  • Loyalty
  • Dealing with dissension
  • Maintaining discipline under difficult circumstances
  • The chain of command
  • The stresses of command
  • Mental health challenges
  • Compassion

Development of a Leadership Skills Lesson Plan

Given the belief that watching a movie would be more enlightening and entertaining than more traditional leadership training, I developed a lesson plan and submitted it for approval to Virginia’s criminal justice board. It approved the lesson plan and awards four hours of in-service credit to each of the attendees for each leadership session attended.

Our leadership program requires our supervisors (sergeants) and command staff (lieutenants and above) to watch a specified movie once each quarter and then be prepared to discuss it in person or via Zoom, depending on current pandemic circumstances. Before viewing the movie, a two-three-page study guide is sent to all participants to help focus their attention on key leadership points. The movie is then discussed under the direction of a mentor during a mandatory two-hour meeting. Notes about lessons learned and participants’ perspectives are recorded and then distributed to all participants.

Proof of Concept

On February 9, our police leadership discussed our first movie, “Twelve O’clock High,” and it was a smashing success as recorded in the anonymous course reviews. The following important lessons were learned, including:

  • The characteristics of a good leader
  • How certain leadership styles may be successful in a hierarchical organization but fail when innovation is needed
  • The importance of two-way communications and, in particular, the need for subordinates to understand the mission and how their individual actions contribute to its attainment
  • How proficiency and discipline are essential to success
  • How leaders need to demonstrate their own capabilities to be credible
  • People are capable of achieving higher standards than they think they can
  • Pride is essential for unit cohesion and, therefore, mission accomplishment
  • Don’t let friendship get in the way of the mission
  • Structure, rules and discipline provide a common reference and help to unify action
  • The need to grow subordinates by letting them experience the challenges of different jobs and different levels of authority and responsibility.

Some Procedural Lessons Learned

Apart from the substantive lessons discussed above, we also learned several procedural tips that contributed to the training’s success.

  • First, while in-person training is recommended, we found it possible to do virtual training as long as the participants’ cameras were turned on. The cameras allowed the moderator to see who wanted to speak and regulate participation in an orderly manner.
  • Second, while our chief and assistant chief participated in the training, they did not conduct the training. Instead, they participated as a normal class member. They were able to contribute perspectives but not use the forum to justify their decisions.
  • Third, the decision to identify questions and discussion points in advance of viewing the movie focused participant attention on key themes as they watched the movie, thereby contributing greatly to the quality of the discussion. The final lesson, which will inform the selection of subsequent films for viewing, is to pick a variety of older and contemporary films, and not just military movies, to appeal to different tastes, generations and styles.

NOVA Police’s initial effort to identify key leadership issues and enhance the skills of our supervisors and commanders has been well-received. In the coming months there will be more movies and discussions and we believe our leaders will profit from viewing these leadership lessons in enjoyable movies and discussing them candidly among ourselves. Stay tuned!

To obtain a copy of these free training materials, contact Lt. Weinstein at jweinstein@nvcc.edu or (571) 422-9928.

About the Author

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Award-winning author Lt. John Weinstein commands Strategic Planning and Outreach for the Northern Virginia Community College Police Department. The views expressed herein represent the personal views of the author and should not be construed as representing the official view of the Northern Virginia Community College or any of its components.

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