4 Vital Lessons on Leadership from “Excalibur”

John Boorman’s 1981 rendition of the classic Arthurian legend provides four lessons on leadership every CEO and manager should heed. It’s one thing to be given a title. It’s quite another to earn it.

#1. BE a Leader

Just because someone gives you a title, that doesn’t make you a “Leader” (with a capital “L”). Whether you’re the manager of a department, CEO of a company, or president of the United States. True leadership comes from a person’s actions; from how they treat the people they lead to the integrity they show in their role.

In the first act of the movie, shortly after the young Arthur has drawn the mystical sword of power proving he to be the rightful air to the throne, he finds himself in the middle of civil war. It turns out that some of the lords of the land didn’t take too kindly to a squire being their king.

As he wages battle against one of the Knights and Lords, Sir Uryens, he does the unthinkable. Having bested Uryens in hand to hand combat, Arthur asks for Uryens loyalty for he needs men like that. Uryens, being a proud knight, refuses to pledge loyalty to a simple squire.

In an unprecedented move, with everyone watching, Arthur gives Uryens Excalibur so that Uryens can knight him. In the one move, he illustrates his bravery, nobility, and strength, and he instantly instills trust and loyalty.

As this scene demonstrates, age doesn’t matter. I’ve been in positions where I’ve led people many years (even decades) my senior, and in positions where I’ve been led by those many years younger than me. From the days I was a young manager in my 20s, leading a whole department, to working for millennials in my late 40s, I’ve learned the respect I can earn (or give) is intimately tied to leadership characteristics like integrity, trust, maturity, reason, experience, and self-awareness.

#2. Have Mentors

Another lesson on leadership comes from King Arthur’s relationship with Merlin. In the context of the movie, Merlin is a “creature” of some sort. An ageless being, probably not too unlike Tolkien’s Istari, the race of angel-like beings that take on the earthly form of wizards (i.e. Gandalf the Grey).

Merlin provides Arthur leadership, advice, and guidance; and it often isn’t what you’d expect. For instance, during one of the dinners at the Round Table, Arthur asks a very bored Merlin, “What the greatest quality of a knight?” Merlin’s answer is unexpected.

TRUTH! That’s it. Truth. When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.

This answer is particularly poignant at this part of the story because the audience knows that the greatest knight of the Round Table, Lancelot, is hiding his love for Guinevere.

Every great leader I’ve worked for or seen in action, has some kind of mentor they have learned from and/or continue to trust. Pastors. CEOs. Managers. World-famous swing dance instructors. The best ones I’ve known realize that 1) a leader never stops learning, and 2) they can be better mentors to those around then when they themselves have good role models to follow.

#3. Build a Great Team

You can’t be very much of a leader if you don’t have people to lead. Arthur exemplifies his ability to build a great team and surrounding himself with the best of the best.

A good leader finds men and women who fill the gaps the leader has. A good leader makes it a point to hire the best and then uses the skills and experience of those around them to elevate the whole team. Better yet, he allows them to use their skills and experience. If a leader inherits a team, they may have to let some people go in order to make that team the best it can be. But whether through hiring or firing, a good leader does what she can to build the best team possible.

#4. Show Humility

A good leader realizes when he’s made a mistake, or where his faults lie. It can be all too easy to buy into the hype that you’re the sh*t, the cat’s meow, when you have a fancy title, a huge salary, and/or lots of people to lead. But a good leader takes it in stride and leads with humility. Part of that humility is being big enough to own up when they’ve made a mistake.

Arthur uses the power of Excalibur to best Lancelot in combat. But he was not meant to win. As Lancelot tells him in the scene:

You, sir, would gladly fight to the death against a man who is not your enemy for a piece of land you could easily ride around.

Arthur uses magic to change the outcome of that fight against a truly noble knight who fought with grace. That act of pride was so terrible, it broke “that which could not be broken.” He broke Excalibur. (And, of course, as is often the case, a woman had to come by and “pick up the pieces.” That’s a lesson for another blog post.)

How many departments, companies, churches, or other organizations have been “broken” by the pride of their leader? Too many to name.

BE a Leader

It should go without saying that you don’t have to be formally given a title or promotion to be a “Leader.” Some of the best leaders I’ve worked with were individual contributors to whom the entire team gravitates for wisdom, strength, confidence, and advice. If I may be so bold as to tap into another aspect of my geekiness, they are the “Boothby’s” of the world (that’s a nod to you Star Trek fans out there).

Captian Picard and Boothby
Even Jean Luc Picard (played by “Excalibur” cast member Sir Patrick Stewart), the greatest captain in Star Fleet, seeks wisdom and advice from a simple groundskeeper.

They don’t have a fancy title, large salary, or any formal group of people underneath them. But everyone on the team respects them and turns to them in times of need.

Whether you’re a CEO, manager, or the lowest person on the proverbial totem pole, may you find the wisdom, strength, integrity, and humility to be a leader worthy to wield Excalibur.

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