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Recently, I had the opportunity to watch Christopher Nolan’s 2017 movie Dunkirk, and it has me thinking about why a leadership title is not enough to guarantee that someone will, in fact, lead.
The movie does a wonderful job of showing how in times of war, the uniform does not a leader make. Likewise, in my experience, not all leaders have titles and not all those with titles are leaders.
The movie is based on the remarkable World War II evacuation of over 330,000 allied soldiers trapped by quickly advancing Germans on France’s North Shore. Just across the channel, the promise of safety beckons. And yet, the large Navy carrier ships are easy targets for German submarines and fighter pilots. As a result, the successful rescue operation depended heavily on a flotilla of 700 private little ships, many piloted and staffed by civilians.
Great films, whether completely fictional or based on a true story, have a way of pulling us in to personal stories and moral challenges that reflect the complex reality of real life. In Dunkirk, the theme demonstrates our instinctual will to not only survive, but give one’s life for the sake of others. It is a movie about real people turned heroes. About how situations can cause some among us to rise up as true leaders.
While the extreme circumstances in the movie are, thankfully, not something most of us will ever have to experience, we are all fighting battles. Every one of us is facing personal battles for certain. But beyond that, there has yet to be a point in our history where issues of social, political, and economic justice were not present in daily life. Regardless of the circumstances, there are always those among us who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way for causes that matter deeply to them.
Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but notice that heroes are made when those amongst us recognize the threat, feel the fear, and act anyway. This is leadership in action.
Leadership shows up in many different ways throughout the movie.
We see it in a British pleasure boat captain who joins the rescue flotilla, asserting that if men his age are going to send young soldiers to war, they should be prepared to do all they can to bring them home.
We see it in this same captain’s teenage son who acts with a compassion far beyond his years toward a shell-shocked soldier, even in the face of the fact that the soldier was responsible for the death of a friend.
We recognize it in a Royal Air Force pilot who knows he must turn around to safety because his fuel is running out, but who chooses to stay, facing German capture, to first protect hundreds still trapped on the beach.
Likewise, the movie is full of examples of those who hold a leadership title but do not act the part.
Since watching, I’ve been contemplating my own leadership capacity. I am reminded that there is no age, gender, educational status, or professional training capable of the automatic creation of a leader. It is only through our actions that we may lay claim to this title.
Simple actions like answering a question honestly, admitting a mistake, and choosing to stand up for someone else are what makes us leaders – and heroes – not the title.
Who have been the heroes in your own life? How did their leadership impact you?