What Does George Lucas’s Film Red Tails Teach Us About Leadership?

George Lucas’s latest film Red Tails is the true, inspiring story of the Tuskegee Airmen who were American pilots and heroes in World War II. It recounts the story of American men who wanted to fight for their country in real combat but were not initially allowed to do so because they were considered unqualified by senior military leaders.

This view of the unsuitability of the Tuskegee Airmen was the direct opposite of  their commanding officer Colonel A. J. Bullard (played by actor Terrence Howard). In the film, Colonel Bullard is a tough, focused leader.  He fights for his Airmen to be given an equal chance to see combat action and fight for their country.  He  also holds his team accountable for meeting critical goals. The fundamental leadership lesson that runs throughout the film is the following:

Leaders who (1) set high expectations for their teams, (2) provide the training and resources their teams need to be successful, (3) move out of their teams’ way, and then (4) give their teams the opportunity to do their job will find that their teams rise to meet the high expectations.

There are common traits of effective leaders like Colonel Bullard.  As a leader in your organization, how effective are you at the following:

  • Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of your team members? (Or, are you too task focused to engage with your team properly?)
  • Are you able to leverage the individual strengths of your team members? (Or, are you only able to work with people whose behavioral and communication styles are like your own?)
  •  Are you able to coach your team members through their difficulties? (Or, is your first inclination to just replace your talent when you encounter difficulties with their performance?)
  • Will you hold on to your core values that you know to be right even if it makes you unpopular with others?  (Or, are you so adverse to conflict or do you have such a strong need to be liked that you will accept anything–even to the detriment of your team and your own effectiveness?)
  • Are you an advocate for your team and do you focus most of your efforts on making your team successful? (Or, is everything you do about promoting yourself?)

In Red Tails, we see Colonel Bullard doing all of these leadership actions with the Tuskegee Airmen.  Great American stories like those of the Tuskegee Airmen occur when high expectations meet with preparation and opportunity. Great business results occur when you allow the same for your team.


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