[Updated Feb 20, 2019]
Precious leadership lessons from an enduring story
For me, the The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) remains my favourite film and book trilogy. This is especially the case given that so much can be learnt on leadership from LOTR.
So in case you missed the lessons when you watched it the first time, do ask your boss for one day away from the office for leadership development, and from the comfy sofa of your home, watch the LOTR trilogy back-to-back.
To help you out with your learning experience and especially if you have to write a report on your ‘training’ day, the following are parts you should look out for in the films.
1. Choosing to lead
Frodo: “I will take the Ring; though I do not know the way.”
We have been conditioned, probably by society, possibly by typical Hollywood movies that leaders are born, and are heroes by virtue of being the smartest, bravest, strongest or all of the above.
The beauty of LOTR is that Frodo is none of this – he has not the wisdom of Elrond, the courage of Boromir, the skill in battle of Legolas nor Gandalf’s magical power.
Yet among the great people assembled for the Council of Elrond, it was Frodo who stepped up and volunteered to take the Ring on the quest to Mount Doom (despite not knowing how).
Leadership has been defined in many ways. One particular definition which appeals to me is that there are two parts that define a leader.
The first part is unhappiness with status quo or the situation at hand. On this, almost all of us can lay claim to having the first part.
However, what distinguishes leaders is the second part, which is when the unhappy individual decides and commits their entire self and energy towards effecting a change for the better.
Viewed this way, leadership is a choice. But it is not a half-hearted option of “let me try first and see”. A true leader commits to doing what it takes to make a difference.
Frodo inspires us that anyone can choose to be a leader, though at the same time, that choice is not without difficulties, challenges and risk.
Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
In the above exchange, Gandalf reinforces the point on choice. Leaders cannot adopt a victim mentality of bemoaning how the world seems to be against them.
Leaders focus on what they can do, making the most of what they have. True to Gandalf’s wisdom – time is often our most precious resource.
Gandalf’s advice is reminiscent of how Dumbledore counsels Harry Potter, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”. (Harry Potter film is another option for a great “leadership training day”.)
2. Strength of fellowship
Aragorn: If by my life or death I can protect you, I will. You have my sword…
Legolas: And you have my bow.
Gimli: And my axe.
Boromir: You carry the fate of us all, little one. If this is indeed the will of the Council, then Gondor will see it done.
A leader may choose to make a difference but rarely can an individual achieve much alone.
The key to leadership is to build a team, ideally a diverse team bringing the different skills needed, but a team united in sharing common goals and values.
LOTR emphasises a strong sense of fellowship. Where a diverse motley crew of individuals come together to save Middle Earth and despite their differences, they remain committed to each other and to the cause.
Sam: I made a promise, Mr Frodo. A promise. “Don’t you leave him Samwise Gamgee.” And I don’t mean to. I don’t mean to.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s inspiration for Sam is a reflection from World War I where an officer would be supported by a servant or “batman”.
Though typically differentiated by class, there were close and loyal bonds of friendship between the leader (officer) and team members (footsoldiers).
Throughout LOTR, success is achieved through the unwavering loyalty to each other and a willingness to forsake one’s own self-interest (and safety) for the common cause.
Eomer: We cannot achieve victory through strength of arms.
Aragorn: Not for ourselves. But we can give Frodo his chance if we keep Sauron’s Eye fixed upon us. Keep him blind to all else that moves.
Legolas: A diversion.
Gimli: Certainty of death, small chance of success… What are we waiting for?
In the exchange, the team agrees to sacrifice themselves to fight an unwinnable battle in order to help Frodo and ultimately, to destroy the Ring. As they march into certain death, Aragorn rallies his troops:
“Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship; but it is not this day!
“An hour of wolves, and shattered shields, when the Age of Men comes crashing down; but it is not this day! This day we fight!”
Whilst we do not expect anyone to sacrifice their lives for the organisation’s objectives, the ability of leaders to communicate a common purpose and align the organisation to a common goal, to the extent of inspiring one’s team to take ownership of the mission and willingly go the extra mile, is a great key to true leadership.
3. Compassion and values
Frodo: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.
Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.
My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.
Despite LOTR involving many battles, the leaders are characterised as having compassion and not taking lives needlessly.
As it happens, Bilbo showing mercy to Gollum, a character seemingly undeserving of mercy, ultimately saves the day.
Tolkien takes pains to develop Aragorn’s character as not a two-dimensional killing machine in battle but also defines him as a healer (where he plays a key role in Eowyn’s recovery). This is in line with situational leadership, being able to take lives and save lives accordingly.
Aragorn: [Théoden threatens to kill Wormtongue] No, my lord – let him go. Enough blood has been spilt on his account.
However, beyond reacting to situations, there is a core of compassion shown by Aragorn above. He is able to not just show total commitment to his friends but also able to forgive his enemies.
In LOTR, Aragorn calls upon the Dead Men of Dunharrow, who had betrayed his forefathers and was able to convince them to help him and in return, he forgave them.
Aragorn: I summon you to fulfil your oath.
King of the Dead: None but the king of Gondor may command me.
Aragorn: Fight for us… and regain your honour.
Beyond compassion, there is a strong thread of ethics and values running through LOTR. Promises are sacred and honour is to be upheld even in battle.
This is important as in choosing to be a leader, it’s all too easy to sacrifice ethics and values in pursuit of one’s goals.
Tolkien ensures his heroes and leaders never stray from the moral high ground, showing both compassion and integrity even in desperate times.
Hence, we are reminded, to truly care for our people in the organisation, whilst preserving our values.
Galadriel: You are a Ring-bearer, Frodo. To bear a Ring of Power is to be alone. This task was appointed to you, and if you do not find a way, no one will.
Frodo: I know what I must do, it’s just that… I’m afraid to do it.
Galadriel: Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.
As depicted above, a leader’s path is not easy. It can be a lonely and difficult journey, where leaders will often doubt themselves.
As with the dilemma faced by Frodo, it is often the case that we know what needs to be done.
It is a question of whether, we can summon the leader in ourselves to make the difficult decisions and stay the course.
A key value of leadership epitomised in LOTR is perseverance – particularly, in the journey of Frodo and Sam, as they soldier on towards Mount Doom on a seemingly impossible mission.
Persevere they did but at one of the points when all seemed lost, Sam and Frodo had the following exchange:
Sam: It’s like in the great stories Mr Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy?
How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer.
Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.
May that be the movie wisdom for us all. Embrace the leader in each of us by choosing to make a difference; rallying together with our teams; being compassionate, upholding integrity and ultimately persevering.
Because there’s good in our friendships, organisations and our country, it’s certainly worth fighting for!
Johan Merican was formerly the CEO of TalentCorp. To send your thoughts on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.