We are back with more leadership lessons from Oscar-winning Best Picture movies and today’s offering is the 1981 film Chariots of Fire 1981. It relates the based-on-fact story of two athletes in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice. The film was directed by Hugh Hudson. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The film is also notable for its memorable electronic theme tune by Vangelis, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. Its principal stars were Ben Cross and Ian Charleson starred as Abrahams and Liddell, alongside with Ian Holm as Sam Mussabini, Abrahams coach. We will consider leadership lessons for these three characters.
Eric Liddell-Charismatic Leadership
One essayist noted that “Eric Liddell is a fully talented person, led by efforts for excellence in studies and sport. Being an academic, he belongs to one of the best schools of Scotland Eton College, Edinburgh University. he is also extremely talented in sports. He is initially very good at rugby but gives up with it in order to completely dedicate himself to running for the 1924 Olympic Games. He is called the “Flying Scotsman”.”
Liddell has the natural talent to attract people around him without exercising top-down authority. He gets his strength internally from and does not need any kind of moral support or even sports of event coaching. He has both the skills and drive innately, which make him appeared to be endowed with special qualities. He takes risks by involving himself in religious purposes.
This increases his leadership towards others as well as his charisma those around him sense. He feels he is driven by a divine mission to uphold God throw his behavior in sports. He, therefore, takes every opportunity to preach. This includes in formal church services and after athletic events and even in the pouring rain of his native Scotland. It is not clear if his skill in public speaking derives from his missionary family, but the film makes clear that he uses this talent very well.
Moreover, he is an authority for those around him. He is passionate and demonstrates his determination in convincing others. At the end of a race, he does not hesitate to gather the crowd around him and speak about God. Under the rain, he is able to sway a large group of people. He speaks their language, talks about their problems. His listeners are highly receptive, some captivated. He is open to others and able to mix with very different social classes. He is as well at ease with people from his high-level College and people from the street who watch him sprint. His modesty is entirely genuine and unaffected.
Liddell had strong emotional intelligence, is quite self-aware; he is good at understanding what motivates him and how his actions or words affect others. He articulates to his sister Jenny who is worried about his attitude towards sport, he finds the right argument and gains her support: he will pursue the mission to China when the games are finished.
Harold Abrahams-Visionary Leadership
Harold Abrahams is depicted as a strong but tormented personality. Today, we might say he is wound very tightly. He descends from a family of Lithuanian Jews and his family’s origins follow him everywhere, not only in his perception but also in the attitude of others towards him. His determination and his desire to be appreciated for what he really is as a person, and not simply to be judged upon his accomplishments.
After losing a race to Liddell, Abraham is almost inconsolable. He claims he only runs to win and if he cannot win, he will not run. This may sound like a very childish attitude but in his despair, he realizes he needs professional help in the way of a coach, something almost revolutionary for his time. He approaches a professional coach, Sam Mussabini, who is initially reluctant to this demand because it was usually him who made the proposition. Nevertheless, Harold’s argument convinces him to observe and then acknowledge his talent: “I can run fast. With your help, I think I can run even faster. Perhaps faster than any man ever ran. I want that Olympic medal. Now, I can see it there. It’s waiting for me. But I can’t get it on my own.”
It is this use of a professional coach, who brings rigor, structure, and technology into Abrahams’ training which makes Abrahams visionary. He clearly sees that the ideal of the pure amateur, if it ever existed, is fastly moving away. He is committed to achieving his goal of Olympic success and will not be detoured. Abrahams is confronted by Cambridge College Dons, who accuse him of not focusing on God-given talent but on training and responds, “I believe in the pursuit of excellence and I’ll carry the future with me”.
Most interestingly, one commentator has noted, Abrahams “is not a leader in the true sense of the word. He does, however, manifest some kind of auto-leadership. He manages himself, he determines his objectives and he identifies his resources. He is extremely self-aware, realistic and down to earth. The fact that he acknowledges the fact that he needs a coach is essential. In a way, we would say that he seeks a leader, a mentor, and a motivator. And he convinces Mussabini, the best in his field, to be that leader for him. If we had to integrate their relationship in a leadership model, it would be the cognitive resources theory and the transactional leadership. Mussabini’s intelligence and experience are the resources that lead to performance. His directivity is exactly what Harold needs; he requires guidance.” Abrahams recognizes he needs coaching, seeks out the best coach around, accepts his inputs and uses all this to achieve his goal of Olympic Gold.
Sam Mussabini-Directive Coach
When Abrahams initially asks Mussabini to coach him, Mussabini demurs saying it should be the coach who approaches the student and not the other way around. Times have certainly changed on that point. He is half-Italian, Half-Arab in a very Anglo English world, who is just as much outside it as is Abrahams. This status enables him to understand Abrahams and provide him skills beyond simply better running technique and more intensive training regimens. As a coach, he understands the psychology of Abrahams and what drives him, saying “a short sprint is run on nerves. It’s tailor-made for neurotics”. He realizes that Harold is a good sprinter and that he is pushed by his nerves. He says that he will “hone his nerves” and this leads to the Olympic Games.
Mussabini is a directive coach; one who provides gives instructions, organizes a strict training with innovatory exercises and has a global point of view on Abrahams’s way of running; he analyzes all his gestures, his whole body, every position. The prime lesson which Mussabini provides Abrahams is confidence. “He believes in him, encourages him, coaches him exclusively and is completely involved. He treats him like a champion and shares his vision of winning.”
The student follows his advice to the letter. He turns Abrahams tautly would nature into a positive. Mussabini demonstrates that a leader can invoke the cognitive resources theory to characterize his leadership, yet between him and Abraham, there is a deep consideration based on an honest exchange to reach the goal, their motivation comes from within, not simply from the reward.
Chariots of Fire is a fabulous movie, well deserving of its best picture award. In addition to the great screenplay, the score and photography are well worth another look. The leadership lessons provided by the three main characters provide an interesting contrast in style and allow every business leader guideposts on tools they can use to lead or in some cases, provide coaching to them.