Seven Lessons From Saving Private Ryan That Will Make You A Better Leader
Saving Private Ryan is Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece. Forget the sentimentality of the plot; the brutality of war is encapsulated in mind-blowing intensity from the onset, as American GIs are torn to pieces on the beaches of Normandy. But despite being arguably the finest war movie ever made, at its heart is a story of the relationships between men at the most trying time imaginable.
Led by Tom Hanks‘s Captain Miller, the squad sent into the French countryside to save Private Ryan are a disparate bunch. From the mouthy Brooklyn street kid, to the bookish pencil-pusher, Captain Miller keeps a tight hold on his command through his extraordinary leadership skills.
Here are seven lessons on team leadership from one of modern cinema’s most inspiring characters:
1. Know when you need to give the orders
From the moment he appears on screen, Captain Miller embodies assertiveness. While his men are paralyzed with fear on the beach at Omaha, he takes command of the situation; leading a handful of his best troops through Dog One to take out the machine gun nest that’s pinning down the rest of the GIs.
Captain Miller analyses the situation quickly, identifies what needs to be done and gives the orders that make it happen. It’s a team effort, but it’s Miller’s organisation and delegation skills that make it successful.
Sometimes you need to be brave enough to take control, and the best way to do that is to give orders. Don’t be afraid to be directive; just make sure you’re doing it at the right time.
2. Don’t be afraid to show your weaknesses
Captain Miller isn’t a superhero. He’s as human as the next man; but he’s driven by a need to protect everyone in his command. A veteran of the North African and Italian campaigns, the effects of war have already taken their toll on Miller; but he won’t let that stop him leading.
Throughout the movie Miller’s hand shakes, and his men notice. Rather than undermine his authority, though, it enhances it. The squad see Miller as “one of them”; as a man who’s under the same intense pressure but still manages to do the best he can.
Don’t be afraid to reveal your weaknesses to your team. They don’t want a robot as their leader, after all; they want someone they can follow; that they want to work for. And that means being real.
3. Reveal as much of yourself as you need to (when you need to)
It’s soon apparent that Captain Miller is an enigma. His company have been running a pool since North Africa on what he does for a living back home. For Miller, his civilian life has no bearing on his ability as a soldier, but that doesn’t stop his troops speculating.
At its most intense moment, though, Miller makes the decision to break his silence and diffuse a situation that’s about to escalate to incendiary proportions. As his squad get ready to break the rules of war by executing a prisoner, Miller reveals that he used to be a teacher.
Suddenly, the normality of Miller’s homelife amplifies the insanity of the situation. He’s not a super-soldier assembled from the body parts of dead GIs; he’s a regular guy with a wife, a home, a career and everyday worries. Remember, you’re not a machine; your team need to know you’re real.
4. Don’t gripe about your superiors to your team
When Miller’s squad discover the nature of their mission, they’re less than happy. Why waste the lives of an entire unit for the sake of one lost paratrooper? Confiding in his right hand man, Sgt Horvath, Miller reveals that he feels the same; he doesn’t let it show to anyone else, though.
Rather than join in with the complaining of his men, Miller refuses. In a brilliant moment of communication, he outlines the rules of griping in the US Army. “I don’t gripe to you Reiben. I’m a Captain,” he says. “There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on and so on.”
It’s a rule that applies to all business teams. It can be easy for a middle manager to complain about his bosses to his team, but it always has a negative impact. You might not agree with what you’re being asked to do, but don't join in the complaining; it undermines the leadership of your whole business, including yours.
5. Don’t lie about a task you don’t believe in
But that doesn’t mean you should lie about a task you don’t believe in. When asked what he’d say if Reiben was a Major, Miller follows up with the brilliantly deadpan “I’d say this is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover… I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men — especially you Reiben — to ease her suffering.”
What Miller is doing with this comment is revealing his own beliefs about the validity of the job in hand without undermining his superiors. He’s aligning himself with the men under his command, but still maintaining a distance. It’s an incredible piece of communication that says everything Miller needs to about the mission.
Your team will always smell a lie. If you don’t believe in a directive from higher up, don’t try and convince your team that you do. Be honest with them, let them know your reservations; but always, always remain professional. In all walks of life, there’s a chain of command; sometimes you just need to do what you’re told.
6. Admit when you’ve made a mistake
Desperate to find his Private Ryan so he can complete his mission, Captain Miller fails to do his due diligence with the first Private Ryan they meet. The conversation turns into a disaster, as Miller tells Ryan that his school-age brothers have been killed in combat.
It’s a massive mistake, but Miller doesn’t shy away from it. As Ryan begins to cry, Miller admits there’s been a huge foul up. Sometimes, even the most experienced and thoughtful leader can get things wrong; the secret is to accept it.
Avoid making mistakes and you’ll avoid doing anything but the mediocre. You need to give yourself permission to screw up. Getting things wrong is often the first step towards getting things right. Miller knows his comments about the wrong Ryan’s brothers has had an excruciating impact. He learns from it, and doesn’t let it happen again.
7. Let everyone know you’ll lead from the front
When it comes to leading his men in battle, Captain Miller doesn’t shy away from danger. He’s not the sort of commander to take a back seat while his troops are in the firing line. From the Normandy beaches onwards, he asserts himself as a leader who’ll get stuck into the fighting.
It’s the combination of Miller’s courage, level-headedness and his ability to take control of even the most volatile situation that saves countless soldiers at Omaha. His superiors recognise it, and so do his men. It’s why he finds himself with the mission to rescue Private Ryan, but it’s also why his squad are willing to risk almost certain death to fight alongside him.
By making it clear that he’s willing to put himself at risk for the sake of his men and the sake of the mission, Captain Miller commands respect. As a boss, you’ve got to lead from the front. Prove to your team that you’re willing to step into the firing line and you’ll win their respect.