Rising above dire circumstances
Caution: Spoilers ahead.
The Revenant is based on the true story of American frontiersman, fur trapper, and explorer, Hugh Glass (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio).
In one of the most accurate historical accounts, Glass survived being mauled by a grizzly bear, leaving him unconscious with a broken leg and gashes on his back that exposed bare ribs in the midst of extremely harsh winter conditions.
Abandoned by fellow members of General William Ashley’s 1823 expedition without supplies or weapons, Glass crawled and stumbled 320 kilometres to Fort Kiowa in modern-day South Dakota.
The principal antagonist is John Fitzgerald (portrayed by Tom Hardy), the man who is the primary reason Glass is left for dead, and later, becomes the object of retribution for Glass. He is not lacking in physical courage, but nevertheless is entirely without a moral compass. He cares about his own money and survival—and not very much about anything else.
The word “revenant” is derived from the Latin word reveniens that means “returning.” A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to have returned from the grave to terrorise the living.
Glass returned to confront the bad people in his life and weathered the worst of conditions while embodying stark, unvarnished themes of man’s eternal struggles: courage, adversity, suffering, redemption and conflict resolution.
We’ve all faced hard times—when we felt abandoned, when circumstances were tough or when the odds seemed to be against us. Leaders have the added burden of having to navigate the hardships and find ways to thrive.
This film, in all its gritty splendour, has some teachable moments for leaders facing the worst of times whether it’s the economy, management restructuring or facing a creative block.
1. Stand up and fight
As harsh or as bleak as circumstances are, you’re still in control. You can still fight and dig up every opportunity left, leaving no stone unturned.
Glass was a survivor. Even as a massive grizzly bear tossed him around to protect her cubs, he didn’t accept his fate nor decide he was overpowered. He defended himself against the bear and survived.
That instinct came from developing his skills as a fur trapper and as an explorer. He engaged those skills in order to survive.
Similarly, as a leader, you have taken years developing skills, expertise and certain street smarts. This is the time to tap into all that conscious and unconscious learning. You have the tools, you just need to find them and use them.
As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm. And you stand in front of a tree. If you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability. —Wife of Hugh Glass
2. Lick your wounds
Though by no choice of his own, Glass had to give himself some time to heal before beginning his rugged trek. His wounds—not fully healed—began to fester, requiring him to take extreme measures to clean them.
Be mindful, as a leader, to not dive into troubled waters without being emotionally and mentally ready. Only then can you keep your head above water and save yourself as well as your organisation.
So, take a moment to clear your head and rest your body so you can take on the issue at hand with the right frame of mind.
3. Be a person of your word
Fitzgerald was a dishonourable man consumed by greed. Despite believing, he got away with abandoning Glass, karma got to him anyway. It’s a valuable lesson—integrity—and doing the right thing counts. He broke Glass’ and
General Ashley’s trust and there were repercussions.
Don’t go burning bridges through poor practices and mismanagement. Often in leadership, you find yourself having to rely on peer support and the kindness of others. So don’t make yourself the villain.
4. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I’d done it already. —Hugh Glass
Against all odds, Glass regained consciousness and pulled himself across treacherous terrain to face his foe—and face him, he did. Proving, the direst of times present opportunities for leaders to grow and develop strengths as well as flex their strategy muscles.
Leadership guru, John Kotter, points out that once the right person is in a leadership role, they take a beating.
While it may not be as extreme for those in middle management, leaders can still take a page from Mandela’s handbook by picking themselves up when they get knocked down.
“It’s all about working with people to develop some kind of a vision of a future, which is always a change from where you’re at right now,” Kotter says.
“Then communicating that out to relevant constituencies in a way that gets them to really buy in with, not just with their heads, but with their hearts.”
A wrap up
The Revenant is a thrilling masterpiece that has garnered 12 Oscar nominations this year. Its raw cinematography beautifully captures the harsh elements that serve as a backdrop for the thrilling tale of one man’s drive to survive and face his demon, so to speak.
This film’s theme serves as an artistic reminder that leaders can seize opportunities from the worst of times and come out on top.