A few weeks ago, Chris and I rented a movie starring Robert Redford entitled, The Last Castle. We watched the movie mid-week, so I went into the experience with low expectations. (We typically save the really good DVDs till the weekend.) I was pleasantly surprised by the meaning infused into the plot line.
The Last Castle is one of the best leadership movies I’ve ever seen. The plot unfolds in a maximum security military prison where tough, primarily uneducated inmates serve time for crimes committed while wearing the uniform of the United States Military. The crux of the film is the fight between two leaders, both attempting to secure the followership of inmates but for completely different reasons.
The Warden attempts to maintain control of the prison with an iron fist, questionable tactics and vicious forms of cruelty. His goal is to minimize the self-esteem of the inmates.
The second leader, a highly decorated general of the U.S. Army named Eugene Irwin, was stripped of his rank and sentenced to extended imprisonment in the facility. With more education and leadership gifts than his fellow inmates, he quickly earns their respect by investing in their individual lives. Soon he begins battling the Warden in an attempt to improve conditions for other prisoners.
The way these two leaders approach their “followers” is drastically different. The Warden rationalizes his abuse of power by saying he needs only to look at the inmates’ records to reassure himself they are no longer soldiers but criminals. He sees the worst in the prisoners, focusing on their past mistakes and squelching their future prospects. His degrading approach minimizes their ability to grow, thus ensuring his continued dictatorship.
In contrast, the wise general quickly earns the camaraderie, admiration and follower-ship of his fellow inmates by calling out the best in them. He values them, attempts to help them better their own lives and celebrates both their past and their future potential. While the Warden considers each prisoner the same (every inmate as a worthless sub-human being), the general helps inmates work together by appreciating each other’s unique contribution.
When an influential, confident leader is highly regarded by others, it never ceases to amaze me how much self-worth they can lend to others when they choose to be a servant leader rather than self-righteous ruler. There’s power in seeing the best in others.
Long story short… there are powerful leadership lessons to be snagged from this movie. And, for non-leadership geeks, it’s still entertaining.