15 Movies, Shows and Books for New Leaders Who Want to Grow

15 Movies, Shows, and Books for New Leaders Who Want to Grow

November 27, 2020

Russ Ewell

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

– John F. Kennedy In His Own Words by Tyler Richmond

Cold and snowy, this wintry Boston day had left my hands icy and feet frozen as I sat distracted from the lecture until the professor began to describe the leadership of Otto Von Bismarck. 

Certain teachers and professors possess such a blazing passion and intellectual mastery of their subject that it lights a fire in their students. These are the teachers who penetrate the cold to awaken curiosity, focusing the attention of even the most disinterested or distracted classrooms. I was in the presence of such a scholar on this day.

As I walked out of the lecture, Otto Von Bismarck consumed my mind: his diplomatic skill, questionable motives, ambition for Germany, and ability to weave a global web so intricate that after his departure from the world stage its unraveling would lead to World War I. 

Despite the growl of hunger pangs, my mind led me past the student union into the library where I searched, discovered, and began to read “Bismarck, The Man and The Statesman” by A.J.P. Taylor.

I was 18 and my leadership education had begun. Since that time, I have allowed books, movies, and television shows to be my counselors.

Without counsel purposes are disappointed, but in the multitude of counselors they are established. 

– Proverbs 15:22 KJ21

This idea of books, movies, and television shows being counselors was an epiphany shared with me by a friend. We were walking home from a Blockbuster (Google it!) when he observed my diligent reading habits and commented, “You know what I see about you? You not only get advice from people, but you get advice from all the reading you do. You are a man with many counselors.”

On this delightful day after Thanksgiving (traditionally Black Friday, though during a pandemic Black Friday appears to be every day), I want to encourage you to find a young leader and share with him or her these “15 Movies, Shows and Books for New Leaders Who Want to Grow.”  Introduce them to their new counselors.

tv shows about leadership quote

6 Movies

1. The Courage to Believe – Glory 

There are few movies whose narrative describes the obstacles, emotions, and dangers of believing in a cause better than the movie Glory. In the film, Colonel Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick), Private Trip (Denzel Washington), and Sgt. Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) struggle then develop a deep faith in their righteous cause despite racism, injustice, social conflict, and the awakening conscience of a nation coming to grips with opposing viewpoints over slavery – an awakening that would split families and brother to fight against brother.

2. The Courage to Lead – The Post

The Post is the story of journalism told through the investigative lens which led to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, documents that exposed the truth about the Vietnam War. For those who want to understand the institutional value of the press, why it is essential to a free country, and how a responsible and effective press works, this is your movie. The point of this movie for leaders, however, is Katherine Graham

The consummate actor Meryl Streep portrays Ms. Graham, the widowed publisher of the Washington Post who has to step into her husband’s role after his suicide. Watching her evolution as a leader from insecure to bold will send you leaping off your couch to cheer in recognition of how the dismissed, disrespected, and marginalized are often the exact leaders we need in moments of crisis. It is their courage that helps them fulfill their destiny.

3. The Courage to Endure – Darkest Hour

Winston Churchill is arguably the most important figure of the 20th century, and there is no movie depicting the intellectual depth, political tenacity, emotional fragility, and destructive superiority manifested in his classism and less revealed racism than Darkest Hour. Despite Churchill’s unworthy parts (something we all possess) it is likely Hitler would have dominated Europe before the United States acted, leaving us with a dark world we need only imagine, but for this man who endured and secured his destiny. The portrayal by actor Gary Oldman – yes, Sirius Black from Harry Potter – accesses the soul of Churchill to show us how to survive the storm, and out of this strength to lead a nation through the storm.

4. The Courage to Speak – The American President

Now for something a little lighter. The American President, starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening along with a cast of very recognizable stars, tells the story of a widowed President whose experience of loss has left him politically sound but personally adrift. This movie is his search for identity as a single parent, bachelor, and leader, a search for his voice. A perfect movie for anyone uncomfortable with their current life and leadership responsibilities.

5. The Courage to Wait – Lincoln

Lincoln is probably the greatest leadership movie ever made. My vocabulary lacks the brush capable of painting a canvas with enough detail and color to reflect the immensity of this film. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd-Lincoln) and a cast of heavy hitters are an acting time machine as they transport the viewer to January of 1865. Seriously, it feels as though we are in the room with Lincoln as he struggles in marriage after the death of a child, struggles in leadership with the doubts of his team, and struggles with a nation bitterly divided. In the midst of it all, he teaches us the power of patience, as he deploys the power of delay and waiting in his quest to change and unify a nation. Do yourself a favor and watch this tonight!

6. The Courage to Trust – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter is undervalued as a leadership movie. Rare is the film which allows you to follow the development of a leader from child to young adult. J.K. Rowling in my view is Shakespearean in the detail of her characters, depth of her plot, and multifaceted meanings intricately weaved through a story about magic that simultaneously is about adolescent insecurity, emotional maturity, personal growth, and leadership development, all while respecting the spirituality of this world. 

The Order of The Phoenix is my favorite, because Harry is under assault from dark forces seeking to isolate him with criticism. Amidst it all, Harry’s friends teach him that he doesn’t have to fight his battles alone, which leads Harry on a journey of trust, something essential for any leader to develop – the trust we don’t have to go it alone.

4 Television Shows

1. The Courage to Inspire – Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers is one of the most realistic war films ever made. This HBO Miniseries is an executive leadership seminar. Each episode teaches us about the various levels of leadership, those in battle, those behind the scenes, those in charge, those looking for victory, those looking for glory, the fearful and courageous, the ruthless and compassionate, the naïve and street smart, all coming together in a painfully wonderful story about family and brotherhood. Keep your eyes on the character named Richard D. Winters, because more than anyone in the film he exemplifies the courage to inspire.

2. The Courage to be Unknown – John Adams

The very human aspect of the American founding is the consistency with which the founding fathers concerned themselves with how they would be remembered by history. Witness the rarity of revealing personal documents about Thomas Jefferson, a man who concealed and minimized the less flattering aspects of his biography so effectively he received outsized credit for his contributions, while someone like John Adams was relegated to the back packages of the revolutionary story. 

The television series John Adams on HBO seeks to correct the record by revealing the unique and enormous role he played in the founding of the United States. This contribution was made all the greater because even while realizing the injustice of his omission from the pages of their living history he chose courage, the courage to be unknown, considering the country more important than personal credit (he often did so bitterly but honestly).

3. The Courage to Do Nothing – The Crown

The Crown is a dramatic telling of the royal story, specifically the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, who in 2020, at the age of 94 continues to serve as England’s constitutional monarch. This one is personal for me, because the training and instincts of Queen Elizabeth run counter to my own. She practices extraordinary emotional restraint often choosing to do nothing rather than overreact and overreach. Watching her navigate marriage, family, royal, political, societal, and cultural conflicts with the serenity to do nothing is nothing less than inspiring as we see her patiently outlast rather than outmaneuver. Her mantra to do nothing is about the power of endurance disguised as surrender.  

4. The Courage to Be A Team – West Wing

The television series West Wing is about a president and his leadership team pursuing their vision with a family-like devotion. Martin Sheen is perfectly cast as President Bartlet along with the characters of C.J. Cregg, Leo McGarry, Josh Lyman, and my two favorites Toby Ziegler and Sam Seaborn. 

Watching their devotion to ideals, vision for the country, wins, losses, personal relationships, and most of all total commitment to each other, makes one realize a team is so much more than employment for a salary. It is a group of people with a soul connection so deep they become one. Watch this series from beginning to end to understand how this team was built, why it was so unique, and how your own team can be made better by the lessons it teaches.

5 Books

1. The Courage to Be Radical – Traitor to His Class

Franklin Delano Roosevelt inspired hope during what is widely considered one of the most hopeless periods in American History. Historian and Professor H.W. Brands explains how he created hope out of hopelessness in Traitor to His Class, which is subtitled, “The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”  The reason for the subtitle answers the question of how Roosevelt created hope. 

This book describes the radical nature of a wealthy Roosevelt choosing policies which gave hope to the average American while angering the wealthy. These wealthy saw Roosevelt as one of their own betraying their interests, and their anger still burns today because his policies have been permanently weaved into the social fabric of America. 

This book is both inspiring and challenging, because the very thing that made Roosevelt effective – his willingness to be radical – was also what angered his enemies most, leading us to a question about the type of leader we will choose to be: one who serves the exclusive few (the haves) or the essential many (the have nots).

2. The Courage to Build Relationships – Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush

George Herbert Walker Bush was no Franklin Roosevelt, but (other than Washington and Lincoln) what president can compare to the man who led America to victory over the depression and Hitler? 

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush is on this list not so much for what Mr. Bush did as president, but for how he built relationships during his time in government, especially how he built relationships in his family. Most historians will give Mr. Bush credit for his role in ending the Cold War. Though this is a historic accomplishment, they will also point to his presidential campaigns as igniting the ruthlessness of our current political environment. These contrasting points understood, by reading this biography we learn the man in office rarely revealed the man at home. 

Mr. Bush was both at home and in politics a master relationship builder: thoughtful, considerate, connecting, unifying, gracious, hopeful, tough, determined, forgiving, and not beyond seeking forgiveness. Never have I read a biography so revealing and vulnerable, emotional and moving, because President Bush provides a transparency rare for presidential biographies. What we learn from the incredible writing of author Jon Meachem is that leaders, whether you hate or love them, are human beings. When you finish reading, whether you agree or disagree with the Bush family politics, you will grow to appreciate, if not like, the family.

3. The Courage to Be A Visionary – The Promised Land

The Promised Land by Barack Obama is the best presidential memoir or book on politics since Winston Churchill put pen to paper, since Ulysses S. Grant wrote what is widely considered the greatest military memoir in history. Given the polarization in politics, some in this generation may miss the crisp descriptive literary style of President Obama and how he brings events to life, forcing the reader to consume each page like an appetizer or meal from their favorite restaurant. 

For those who assume I am an Obama fanboy, the truth is more complicated. When he appeared on the scene, I was inspired to see a capable African American running for office, but skeptical about his inexperience and what that meant for his capacity to address a historic crisis. My original impression and ultimate conclusion that he was a once-in-a-lifetime leader made reading his words all the more inspiring as he shares his own skepticism about running for president, and in so doing challenges the reader to be as reflective and genuine as he is in their pursuits. Once you have read the intimacy and honesty of a man taking us on a journey to become and serve as president, what surfaces is his nature, his inner workings, that he is driven by a vision for America similar to our greatest presidents.

Reading this biography along with Destiny and Power can help us understand that politics is practiced by human beings, people with heartbeats, families, friends, failures, hopes, dreams, and a desire to be the best they can be despite their weaknesses. We want to encourage these types of leaders to lead more, not less, especially because we are a nation which has always needed a unifying vision.

4. The Courage To Change The World – Bearing the Cross

Bearing The Cross is a classic biography about Martin Luther King, Jr. which I read some years ago. This book won the Pulitzer Prize because it is the most personal, insightful, inspiring, heartbreaking, frustrating, discouraging, redemptive, encouraging, and hopeful book I have ever read about Dr. King. It makes real the incredible evil of the opposition against the Civil Rights Movement, and the extraordinary courage a young MLK had to summon in order to become the face and force of change in America. 

On display in this book is a process of growth, a process which turned Martin Luther King, Jr. from a young pastor into a global leader. We see his intellectual and spiritual depth, nuance and boldness, strategic brilliance in victory, resilience in defeat, all coming together in one man to teach us what is possible when someone embraces destiny’s call to change the world. Failing to read this great tome is failing yourself.

5. The Courage to Change – Bobby Kennedy

Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye was for me the biography we needed to properly understand this great American hero. Bobby Kennedy, along with his brother President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., together did more to change this world than any other combination of relationships outside the Founding Fathers, Lincoln’s Cabinet and Generals, and Franklin Roosevelt’s Cabinet and Generals. President Kennedy and Dr. King were men in the spotlight from the beginning, while Bobby Kennedy served primarily in the background until the assassination of his brother. The assassination first devastated Bobby Kennedy. The pain of loss cast him adrift without purpose, for his brother had been his purpose. Then, like a butterfly experiencing a metamorphosis, the younger Kennedy flew onto the American scene with a passion for justice and the poor. 

Some would say his transformation and the message of love and justice he brought to America was even more potent than the New Frontier presented by his brother, but it never came to fruition because like John and Martin he too would be assassinated. Despite the loss of Kennedy, his beliefs live on in organizations and communities around America, yet what each leader who reads should grasp is this lesson: it is inflection points, moments of change, turning points, which make us ready and able to fulfill our destiny.