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Every CEO Can Learn Something About Leadership Watching These 11 Films

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A good story is a great way to learn and great films can teach us a lot. These 11 teach some things you won't learn in any MBA program.

1. Wall Street.

The 1987 movie starring Michael Douglas and directed by Oliver Stone was supposed to demonstrate the greed associated with Wall Street. The main character, Gordon Gekko, who is loosely patterned after and Ivan Boesky, lives his life under the belief that greed is good and money is everything. Douglas, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gekko, does an excellent job of showing what power and greed can do as well as the importance of morals in the business world.

2. Glengarry Glen Ross.

Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon starred in this 1992 movie which deals with the incentives offered to salespeople that encourage them to close a sale. The movie was adapted from David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel which was also adapted into a Tony-winning play. The movie demonstrates how lying, cheating and stealing are all in a day’s work for the sales departments of some companies, but also how that attitude can bring the salesperson, and the company, down.

3. Citizen Kane.

The movie, which was produced, co-written and directed by Orson Welles, who also starred as the main character, tells the story of Charles Foster Kane. It was written about newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, who fought to keep it from being released and forbade its mention in his newspapers. The film begins with Kane’s death, alone in a mansion with a “No Trespassing” sign on the gate. The film proceeds as a reporter attempts to find the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud,” interviewing his acquaintances, all of whom he has no relationship with any longer. This demonstrates how achieving success by hurting or belittling others can lead to an empty life.

4. It’s A Wonderful Life.

Considered a classic Christmas movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who dreams of being more than he is and believes he has no purpose in life. What he learns from Clarence, the angel, is that life is a gift and that we never know what impact we have on others. The film also demonstrates that hiring family that are unqualified for a position can be a dangerous business proposition, as George’s Uncle Billy demonstrates. Although the messages in the film are focused on personal improvement, the movie also provides insight into how to be a better business person as well.

5. Up In The Air.

Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, is a corporate downsizer who travels around the country notifying employees that they have been fired. These are people he has never met and whose backgrounds he is uninterested in learning. He is cold-hearted and calculated, paying no attention to the feelings of those he must deal with on a daily basis. It is about cultivating relationships and listening to others, whether it is employees, customers or colleagues.

6. The Fountainhead.

Based on the best-selling novel by Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead” tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect who prefers to struggle rather than compromise his artistic vision. The movie demonstrates the conflict between individualism and capitalism. Company leaders strive to achieve that balance every day and this film shows that it is possible to succeed without conforming to what others believe you should be, but staying true to yourself.

7. Barbarians at the Gate.

Adapted from the book of the same name, “Barbarians at the Gate” tells the true story of the RJR Nabisco takeover battle in 1988. The ultimate lesson from the movie is that greed is not good, much like the message delivered in “Wall Street.” The movie takes the viewer through power battles, hostile takeovers and a leveraged buyout in a way that demonstrates how damaging greed can be in the business world.

8. The Pursuit of Happyness.

The true story of Chris Gardner, a homeless San Francisco salesman who is forced to live on the streets with his young son. Will Smith played Gardner in the movie and his own son, Jaden, played the part of his son, Christopher. The movie shows that education starts outside the classroom and that life seldom turns out the way we planned. It also shows that most situations in life will not be perfect and that determination will get you far in the business world.

9. Pirates of Silicon Valley.

“Pirates of Silicon Valley” recaps the journey of Bill Gates, and Steve Wozniak and their rise to fame as the creators of Microsoft and Apple. The film describes how Jobs and Wozniak used key concepts from a Xerox computer lab to develop their product while still keeping the appearance of counter-cultural businessmen. It shows how perseverance and innovation are key to succeeding in business today.

10. Norma Rae.

Sissy Spacek plays Norma Rae, a single mother, who fights to unionize the textile mill where she works. Employees at the mill have deplorable working conditions and the main character works to create better conditions through the union. It is the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton in North Carolina who succeeded in unionizing the mill where she worked, demonstrating that leadership does not always come from the top.

11. Trading Places.

This comedy, starring Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy, may seem a bit unusual for a list of movies every CEO should watch, but the message it provides is invaluable. It is especially useful for those who need to understand futures and options as the description provided, although basic, is fairly accurate. The movie also encourages people to reflect on what they want out of life and what is truly important.

These movies should be required viewing for every CEO who wants to succeed in business. Although people seldom think of Hollywood as a location where messages can be provided, these movies give insight into corporate greed, finance and leadership in an entertaining way.

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