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Business Leaders on the Silver Screen

Robert Redford, center, stars in the 1972 film “The Candidate”
Robert Redford, center, stars in the 1972 film “The Candidate”Photograph by Everett Collection

Thanksgiving is Hollywood’s Holiday, when the cinema capital of the world releases its very best films as close to the end of the year as possible. And for two very good reasons. The first is obvious: There’s just so much turkey or family you can eat or take, so what else is there to do? The second is more serious, recency: getting the best nominees released as close as possible to the Academy Awards’ votes for the year’s best films. In a recent issue of the Financial Times, Luke Johnson argues that some of our best films have been about American capitalism and lists his top 10. I agree with most of his choices but strongly disagree that “almost all of the entertaining movies about business focus on its dark side,” and the leaders run the gamut from wicked to evil. He worries that this dark portrayal of business will have a negative impact “on consumer support and government policy. Or perhaps,” he writes in his last sentence, “I should just revise my taste in films.”

I’ll get back to Johnson’s “taste” later on, but I totally disagree with his concern about the “dark side” of cinema having a negative impact on consumer support or its distorted view of reality. Over the past 50 years or so, I’ve studied leaders of all types, from military generals to CEOs and politicians. And being based near Hollywood at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, I’ve taken a special interest in movies and television and what I could learn about leadership from observing directors.