The Dead Poet’s Society, a Study in Leadership Development

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
~Walt Whitman

The final scene in the movie, “The Dead Poet’s Society” is a group of high school boys standing on their desks facing toward the rear door through which their beloved teacher, Mr. Keating, played brilliantly by Robin Williams, is exiting. A lamb sacrificed by the school administration eager to find a scapegoat after a student committed suicide. The scene began with Mr. Keating returning to the classroom to pick up his personal effects while his former students were studying poetry under a new teacher, the school administrator who happened to be the Pilate spearheading the sacrifice to appease parents.

Todd, an introverted student who found a voice under Keating’s tutelage, in direct defiance of the new authority, was the first to climb atop his desk, a tool Keating taught to view life from a different perspective, and spoke the words “O’ Captain! My Captain!”, a phrase introduced by Keating early in the movie, a name they were given permission to call him. One by one, nine other students, about half the class, followed Todd’s brave action and climbed atop their desks in homage to their former teacher. Keating smiled, replied, “Thank you, boys.” and the movie ends. Ten boys standing, one dead, one expelled equal twelve, the twelve disciples of Keating. An allegory to the Christian gospel.

When I first saw this movie in 1989, I hated the ending. I wanted vindication. I wanted revenge against Nolan, the school administrator, the Pontius Pilate, sacrificing Keating. I wanted the father of the dead boy to face his role in the boy’s suicide. I wanted happiness because all movies are supposed to have happy endings, aren’t they? It wasn’t until years later, after I learned to see the world with new eyes, I realized this is a great leadership movie. The revenge I was seeking was toddler thinking, a desire based on immaturity in attitude. I needed to see the movie through adult eyes, through the eyes of the leader I was becoming.

I don’t know if this movie subconsciously formed my principles of leadership or awakened dormant principles of leadership at the core of my being or was completely unrelated to the formation of my principles of leadership. I do know, Keating and I are kindred spirits in the underlying principles of leadership. His purpose, clearly stated in his conversation with Mr. Nolan, mirrors mine:

Keating: I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.
Mr. Nolan: At these boys’ age? Not on your life!

For Mr. Nolan, education is about conformity, about maintaining the status quo, about creating good little followers that won’t rock boat, about creating drones with the ability to regurgitate information. Mr. Nolan focuses on creating followers in a world desperate for leaders, a world desperate for artists, a world desperate for freethinkers. Mr. Nolan fails the boys in his school.

Where Mr. Nolan sees drones, Keating and I see originals. Where Mr. Nolan desires conformity, Keating and I seek to release the beauty of the individual. Where Mr. Nolan sees boys, Keating and I see emerging men. Where Mr. Nolan sees poverty in individualism, Keating and I see value in the expression of the individual.

How they see the boys determines how they lead the boys. How we see each individual determines how we lead each and every individual. See them as followers and you will grow followers. See them as leaders and you will unleash artists into the world.

When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think. ~Keating

When I train leadership, I emphasize they should never seek to imitate another leader. It’s ok to incorporate traits of a Steve Jobs but one should not try to be the next Steve Jobs because it would come across as inauthentic. People sniff out inauthenticity like ripe garbage and turn up their noses in disgust. Leaders should always lead from their own unique spirit utilizing their individual gifts in a way that is genuinely them for a purpose resonating with their soul.

When I coach leaders, I don’t make decisions for them. I ask them questions designed to ensure they explore options before they make their own decisions. I don’t want them to do what I would do because they think my way must be the right way. I coach them to find an approach unique to who they are. I have watched leaders take a tack I would not choose and saw it work beautifully. It is a long line in learning experiences for me. At other times, it’s one of what I hope will be a long line of learning experiences for them.

McAllister: You take a big risk by encouraging them to be artists, John. When they realize they’re not Rembrandts, Shakespeares or Mozarts, they’ll hate you for it.
Keating: We’re not talking artists, George, we’re talking freethinkers.
McAllister: Freethinkers at seventeen?
Keating: Funny — I never pegged you as a cynic.
McAllister: Not a cynic, a realist. “Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams, and I’ll show you a happy man.”
Keating: “But only in their dreams can men be truly free. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”

I believe leadership is an art. Not metaphorically art but actual art. The world needs more and more artists. Harvard Business Review articulates this much better than I have ever been able to in the article, Every Leader is an Artist by Michael O’Malley:

The same attributes that distinguish great from mediocre artists distinguish exceptional leaders from their ordinary counterparts. The best leaders and artists give us perspective on our social condition (good or bad) and greater appreciation of our world, ourselves, and our choices. Moreover, they challenge, excite, comfort, and motivate. They bring us closer together by providing a forum for shared experiences and by forging a sense of community. Leadership and art both animate social encounters. They can change our lives in ways that are as invigorating and real as being hit by a wave.

A few times a year, I return to the movie and fast forward to the final scene. I love seeing Todd take the big step in his emergence as a leader, I love seeing boys becoming men as they stand up to a floundering authority more concerned with looking good in the eyes of the parents than in the hearts of the boys. It’s a choice of style over substance.

Every time I watch the final scene my soul stirs, my eyes tear up. I see in the movie the validation of leadership principles on which I base my life. I see my why. I see in Keating, the impact of a leader willing to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the people he leads. I see in those boys the conviction of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Bill Gates. I see in those boys, artists on par with Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and Mozart. I see in those boys next generation leaders with the ability to change the world for the better.


Author: David A Olson

I often find my mind wandering to various subjects, subjects that make me stop and think. The blog, Musings of a Middle Aged Man, is a catalog of those thoughts I muse upon as I search for significance in life. I am the father of 3 children and the grandfather to 2. I spend my days working for a medium sized multinational corporation where I am an Agile Coach. I view myself as a Servant Leader, have a passion for leadership, particularly, in helping people develop their individual leadership skills and abilities. In October 2012, I went to India on business. After a week of being there, I still had not talked to or texted my 7-year-old grandson. He asked his mom, "Is Papa dead? He hasn't texted me all week." To facilitate communication now that he and I no longer live together, I started a blog for us to communicate. It's titled, "Correspondence Between Luke and His Papi". In April 2013, I moved to Pune, India on an 18-month delegation. It's an adventure that was 1.5 years in the making...The experience is captured on my blog, "The Adventures of an American Living Abroad" My two latest blogs are "The Learning Leader", a topic I have been studying since 1990, and "Lipstick on a Pig", a foray into the fashion sense of this middle aged man.

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