Today’s Solutions: February 05, 2023

Lessons in female leadership from Mulan, Whale Rider and Kill Bill

Tijn Touber and Manfred van Doorn| July/Aug 2007 issue
The world needs more female decision-makers in politics and business, according to psychologist Manfred van Doorn. And he believes great role models inspiring a new generation of women leaders can be found at the movie theatre. After all, the plot of many movie scripts closely follows the steps of the mythological hero, which Joseph Campbell describes in his influential book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, as the common path shared by influential, archetypal figures in almost every culture. To give women insight into their leadership qualities, Van Doorn selected movie scenes that are helpful to anyone chasing a dream and wishing to discover the hero(ine) in themselves.
1. The prologue
You prepare yourself, consciously or unconsciously, for what’s to come. In the opening scene of Whale Rider, the young heroine, a New Zealand Maori girl named Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), describes the history of her people. She looks at her own birth—a trauma, because her mother and twin brother died—and describes how difficult her future will be in light of her place as the only descendant of her grandfather, a statesman.
Leadership qualities: life experience, subconscious awareness
2. Your call to adventure
You feel an impulse to act. It’s the start of your mission. Sometimes it’s an inner urge, as if something or someone is pushing you. In the animated movie Mulan, the heroine of the same name is shaken out of sleep by the shocking news that the Huns have invaded China. This is the wake-up call that launches her adventure: She will have to take the place of her father in the army because he has been wounded in battle.
Leadership qualities: power of personal initiative, willingness to face competition and confrontation
3. Refusing to heed the call
But what is put in motion often stalls. This setback may be due to an obstacle or burden. In Mulan, the heroine is forbidden to join the army. But it may also be that you’re not ready. In Mrs. Brown, Queen Victoria (Judy Dench) says she’s not yet prepared to resume her duties as queen. This refusal has an essential function: building strength, allowing time for courage to be gathered.
Leadership qualities: ability to handle stress and cope with setbacks, functional denial
4. Meeting your mentor
You meet an inspiring guide who teaches you something—a skill, a way of looking at yourself or the world—which prompts you to resume the call to adventure. For example, “The Bride” (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill learns the most deadly fighting techniques from kung fu master Pai Mei. This is one example of how a mentor helps you see you’re unique and you’ve got what it takes to tackle your adventure. Sometimes the heroine herself acts as a mentor, as is the case with teacher Louanne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) in Dangerous Minds, who makes a point of emphasizing all the good qualities of a difficult student during a visit with his family. This not only changes the parents’ view of their son but the image the son has of himself.
Leadership qualities: curiosity, creativity, humour, the ability to surprise
5. Overcoming the guards
The next challenge is the appearance of “threshold guards” whose aim is to hold you back: your strict parents, your surly boss. You must take a hard stance to push them aside. In Elizabeth, we see the newly crowned British queen (Cate Blanchett) sitting on the throne opposite the bishops whose power she needs to curtail. She doesn’t hesitate to use all her available power tactics: she persuades, entices, enervates, eliminates or locks up her opponents. You won’t get anywhere if you lack drive at this point, but too much can mean that down the road you discover you have power, influence and money but never got around to living your life to the fullest..
Leadership qualities: rationality, negotiating skills, persuasiveness
6. The false queen
The initial successfully endured tests are followed by euphoria. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, we see Kimberly Wallace (Cameron Diaz) beaming like a queen because she’s won appreciation for her off-key singing during a karaoke competition that she had to convince herself to join. But you’ll soon discover that your success is beginner’s luck—achieved primarily due to random events or help from your mentor. While it’s important to enjoy your initial success, remember that if you remain a false queen for too long, you’ll get hooked on the applause, and won’t get any further in your adventure.
Leadership qualities: capacity to motivate and delegate, self-confidence, charisma
7. Meeting your goddess
Now you are ready to meet the “goddess,” a mentor who doesn’t teach you a skill or change your self-image but instead helps you descend into your inner world. The goddess helps you develop your feminine side. In Mrs. Henderson Presents, Laura Henderson (Judy Dench) makes all her decisions about what to do with the theatre she has bought during discussions with an older friend. It looks like they’re just pleasantly chatting, but the friend’s advice amounts to a psychological initiation in which Henderson immerses herself.
Leadership qualities: dedication, eye for detail, educability
8. The turning point
And then you lose everything you care about: your loved one, your money, your health. You even lose your grasp of the adventure. In movies, the bad guy unexpectedly reappears when you thought he was gone for good. Thanks to lessons learned from the goddess, however, you now have faith in a happy ending, even though everything is going wrong. You can’t do anything but sit still and wait quietly until the storm blows over. In Ray, we see how Aretha (Sharon Warren) stands by and watches her son go blind. Precisely by doing nothing, she helps her son listen better and discover the strength that will enable him to develop into the musical legend Ray Charles.
Leadership qualities: patience, flexibility, listening skills, co-operation
9. The betrayal
Even more disasters! Friends who once supported you turn away. The magic weapon that brought you to this point has broken or been lost. You feel as if you’ve been stabbed in the back. Sometimes, in order to save yourself, you have to betray yourself. This means you break your promises, forget what you promised, abandon your principles. In the American television series Commander in Chief, President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) resorts to blackmail by threatening an opponent with an old video tape showing his racist slurs. When you’re betrayed or when something or someone you care about is threatened, you need to get your hands dirty. Darkness sets in.
Leadership qualities: analytical ability, sharp wits
10. Finding your way back to the light
The darkness is where you find buried treasure: your ideals, your goals, the meaning of life. The journey back to the light is often inspired by the memory of your mentor’s most important lesson or the meeting with a good friend, as happened in Miss Potter. When Beatrix Potter (Renée Zellweger) is immersed in mourning, her best friend appears and literally opens the curtains to let the light back in. In action films, this phase often plays out during a chase scene in which the heroine is being hunted and has only one goal: to escape.
Leadership qualities: ability to focus, goal-orientation, long-term vision
11. Death and resurrection
Now that you’ve seen the light, you know what you need to do. This is the moment of truth: your final test. Are you capable of overcoming your fears and desires to complete your mission? Are you prepared to sacrifice yourself for the greater good or your own beloved? You’re now all on your own; you must complete this phase under your own power. In Hollywood, this is symbolized by the final cliffhanger. In Whale Rider, Paikea is prepared to dive into the ocean on the back of a whale, while the animated character Mulan stands alone to fight off her assailants.
Leadership qualities: principled leadership, freedom from fear, ability to find and use your voice
12. Returning with the elixir
Congratulations, you’ve proven you’re ready to sacrifice yourself in the service of a greater good. The reward is that you can return to your ordinary life with something of value—an elixir. In films, the heroine may return with her loved one, important new knowledge or the ability to break a bad spell. This moment of glory is different from before, because now you are released from your ego. In Commander in Chief, the president gives the incriminating video tape away to her opponent—partly as a gesture of forgiveness, partly out of integrity and partly as a sign of her self-assurance. In fact, you yourself are the elixir: the best proof that evil can be conquered and greatness achieved.
Leadership qualities: compassion, organizational ability, servant leadership
1. The epilogue
Whale Rider begins with a voiceover of the heroine and images of water. At the end of the film, we see her as a leader seated in the village canoe giving direction to the community. As moviegoers, our desire for a story is satisfied, but we also know the tale will continue. This is because in every film, in every life, there is always a fresh challenge, a new adventure, another mission.

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