Over on my leadership podcast, 12 O’Clock High, a podcast on business leadership, Richard Lummis and I are back with more leadership lessons from Oscar-winning Best Picture movies. For our first offering this year, we considered the leadership lessons from the Best Picture of 1981 film Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson. According to imdb.com, the film is about “Two British track athletes, one a determined Jew, and the other a devout Christian, compete in the 1924 Olympics.” It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The film is also notable for its memorable electronic theme tune by Vangelis, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. Its principal stars were Ben Cross as Englishman Harold Abrahams, Ian Charleson as Scotsman Eric Liddell and Ian Holm as Sam Mussabini, Abrahams’ coach. We will consider leadership lessons for these three characters.

Eric Liddell – Charismatic Leadership 

One essayist noted, “Eric Liddell is a fully talented person, led by efforts for excellence in studies and sport. Being an academic, he belongs to one of the best schools of Scotland Eton College, Edinburgh University. he is also extremely talented in sports. He is initially very good at rugby but gives up with it in order to completely dedicate himself to running for the 1924 Olympic Games. He is called the “flying Scotsman”.”

Liddell has the natural talent to attract people around him without exercising top down authority. He gets his strength internally from and does not need any kind of moral support or even event coaching. He has both the skills and drive innately, which makes him appear to be endowed with special qualities. He takes risks by involving himself in religious purposes.

This increases his leadership towards others as well as his charisma those around him sense. He feels he is driven by a divine mission to uphold God through his behavior in sports. He takes every opportunity to preach. This includes formal church services, after athletic events and even in the pouring rain of his native Scotland. It is not clear if his skill in public speaking derives from his missionary family, but the film makes clear that he uses this talent very well.

Moreover, he is an authority for those around him. He is passionate and demonstrates his determination in convincing others. At the end of a race, he does not hesitate to gather the crowd around him and speak about God. Under the rain, he is able to sway a large group of people. He speaks their language, talks about their problems. His listeners are highly receptive, some captivated. He is open to others and able to mix with very different social classes. He is as well at ease with people from his high-level College and people from the street who watch him sprint. His modesty is entirely genuine and unaffected.

Liddell had strong emotional intelligence, is quite self-aware; is good at understanding what motivates him and how his actions or words affect others. He articulates to his sister Jennie, who is worried about his attitude towards sport, the right argument and gains her support: he will pursue the mission to China when the games are finished.

Harold Abrahams – Visionary Leadership

Harold Abrahams is depicted as a strong but tormented personality. Today, we might say he is wound very tightly. He descends from a family of Lithuanian Jews and his family’s origins follow him everywhere, not only in his perception, but also in the attitude of others towards him. His determination and his desire to be appreciated for what he really is as a person, and not simply to be judged upon his accomplishments.

After losing a race to Liddell, Abrahams is almost inconsolable. He claims he only runs to win and if he cannot win, he will not run. This may sound like a very childish attitude but in his despair he realizes he needs professional help in the way of a coach, something almost revolutionary for his time. He approaches a professional coach, Sam Mussabini, who is initially reluctant to this demand, because it’s usually him who makes the proposition. Nevertheless, Harold’s argument convinces him to observe and then acknowledge his talent: “I can run fast. With your help, I think I can run even faster. Perhaps faster than any man ever ran. I want that Olympic medal. Now, I can see it there. It’s waiting for me. But I can’t get it on my own.”

It is this use of a professional coach, who brings rigor, structure and technology into Abrahams’ training which makes Abrahams visionary. He clearly sees that the ideal of the pure amateur, if it ever existed, is quickly moving away. He is committed to achieving his goal of Olympic success and will not be detoured. Abrahams is confronted by Cambridge College Dons, who accuse him of not focusing on God-given talent but on training and responds, “I believe in the pursuit of excellence and I’ll carry the future with me”.

Most interestingly, one commentator has noted, Abrahams “is not a leader in the true sense of the word. He does, however, manifest some kind of auto-leadership. He manages himself, he determines his objectives and he identifies his resources. He is extremely self-aware, realistic and down to earth. The fact that he acknowledges the fact that he needs a coach is essential. In a way, we would say that he seeks a leader, a mentor and a motivator. And he convinces Mussabini, the best in his field, to be that leader for him. If we had to integrate their relationship in a leadership model, it would be the cognitive resources theory and the transactional leadership. Mussabini’s intelligence and experience are the resources that lead to performance. His directivity is exactly what Harold needs; he requires guidance.” Abrahams recognized that he needed coaching, sought out the best coach around, accepted his inputs and used it all to achieve his goal of Olympic Gold.

Sam Mussabini – Directive Coach

When Abrahams initially asks Mussabini to coach him, Mussabini demurs saying it should be the coach who approaches the student and not the other way around. Times have certainly changed on that point. He is half-Italian, half-Arab in a very Anglo English world, who is just as much outside it as is Abrahams. This status enables him to understand Abrahams and provide him skills beyond simply better running technique and more intensive training regimens. As a coach, he understands the psychology of Abrahams and what drives him, saying, “a short sprint is run on nerves. It’s tailor made for neurotics”. He realizes that Harold is a good sprinter and that he is pushed by his nerves. He says that he will “hone his nerves” and this leads to the Olympic Games.

Mussabini is a directive coach; one who gives instructions, organizes strict training with innovatory exercises and has a global point of view on Abrahams’s way of running; he analyzes all his gestures, his whole body, every position. The prime lesson which Mussabini provides Abrahams is confidence. “He believes in him, encourages him, coaches him exclusively and is completely involved. He treats him like a champion and shares his vision of winning.”

The student follows his advice to the letter. He turns Abrahams tightly wound nature into a positive. Mussabini demonstrates that a leader can invoke the cognitive resources theory to characterize his leadership, yet between he and Abraham, there is a deep consideration based on an honest exchange to reach the goal, their motivation comes from within, not simply from the reward.

Chariots of Fire is a fabulous movie, well deserving of its Best Picture award. In addition to the great screenplay, the score and photography are well worth another look. The leadership lessons provided by the three main characters provides an interesting contrast in style and allows every business leader guideposts on tools they can use to lead or, in some cases, provide coaching to them. Head on over to 12 O’Clock High and check out the commentary by Richard and myself.

Check out the opening sequence, with Vangelis haunting opening theme music, of Chariots of Fire on YouTube.

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© Thomas R. Fox, 2018