Can We Learn Leadership from a Movie?

By | September 20, 2015

[September 20, 2015]  Last night, after a long day rummaging through books at yard sales, I settled my sore feet down to a movie on the first channel I happened upon.  Luckily I caught one from the beginning and that movie was the 1963 epic 55 Days at Peking, starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and David Niven.  It is a good movie and, yes, we can learn a little about leadership from a movie.

I would give the movie 3 out of 5 stars.  I can’t judge the acting but the historical context in which the movie takes place does a decent job of laying out the the siege of the foreign legations’ compounds in Peking (now Beijing) during the Boxer Rebellion.  That’s why I give it 3 stars.  This was my third time watching the movie and the first two times I was young an ignorant of the Chinese Boxers and their place in early 20th Century China.  The movie only lightly touched on the necessary background and could not give an appreciation of the events at the time.

Movies are that way; they oversimplify historical events and in their haste (it’s only a movie) to condense significant events into short scenes, they will strip any real substance from it.  In this movie, one had to have an understanding of the Boxer Rebellion and of the Chinese Qing Dynasty to fully appreciate the subsequent events at the foreign legations’ compounds.

What leadership lessons can we learn from the movie?

  1. The events in the movie take place at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and at that time and today remain politically charged. The film shows the attitudes about how Westerners viewed the Chinese people, colonialism, and nationalism.  It also touched on the conflicts among the Chinese, Japanese, and European powers.  Diplomacy is based upon a thorough understanding of a culture and knowing one’s own weaknesses and strengths.  This movie showed our Western weaknesses and strengths.
  2. The movie has value in its depiction of a time of great transition for the Chinese peoples. It set the stage for China’s movement into the industrial age and later the information age as its citizens quickly used their hard work ethic and ability to tolerate hard times to their advantage. Looking past some of the 1960’s stereotyping of the Chinese, it does intrigue many to want to know more about what really happened and why it’s so important.
  3. The movie also demonstrates the simple tactical approach to withstanding an assault on a well prepared defensive position. Fortunately, it also showed the need for limited offensive action to truly have a successful defense.  Tenacity, bravery, and good leadership were the three decisive issues facing the colonial powers during the 55-day siege.

I highly recommend seeing the movie, but read up on the Boxer Rebellion and the Qing Dynasty before seeing the film.  You will be richly rewarded for it.

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Note: Yes, you can learn leadership from a movie but this is not the typical outcome.  Leadership is learned from relevant, practical experiences, not from the comfort of your couch by observing it from afar.  See my blog entry entitled “Leadership Lessons from a Movie” at:



Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

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