Solid Lessons for Being a Good Leader

By Meryl Herr

January 13, 2023

De Pree Journal

1.3 billion. That’s the number of results Google returned when I searched “how to be a better leader at work” in December 2022. Gallup, Harvard Business Review, Tony Robbins, Forbes, MIT Sloan Management Review, and Inc. were a few among the millions with an answer.

It’s such a hot topic because so many of us actually want to be better, more effective leaders. We want to learn how to compensate our people well without going in the red or how to lay off employees with love and dignity. We wonder if sticking to our values means we’ll lose potential new clients. We need strategies for handling conflict in a way that reflects love and grace.

We could search the web for some tips, tricks, and wisdom. We could peruse the Business and Management sections at the local bookstore for a bestseller. Or we could glean some insights from a movie, like the one my son selected for family movie night not too long ago. What he chose for our entertainment surprised me with some solid lessons for being a good leader.

The Kid Who Would Be King is a modern take on the ancient legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. In the movie, twelve-year-old Alexander pulls Excalibur from a stone and discovers, along with Arthur’s long-lost sword, a calling to defeat the very incarnation of evil and save England and her inhabitants from certain doom. With the help of an old storybook and an even older magician, Alexander learns two important lessons that help him fight this battle. And these two lessons are critical for healthy marketplace leaders today.

We Can’t Do It Alone
Soon after finding the sword, Alexander learns that he cannot fulfill his calling on his own. He needs knights to accompany him. One of those knights is his best friend. As for the others, Alexander needs to follow in Arthur’s steps and “[make] his enemies his allies.” Recalling the legend of King Arthur, Alexander inspires his knights as they sit around a table, “Together they defeated an enemy bigger than all of them.”

We’ve seen this concept repeatedly in our healthy marketplace leaders research. The leaders we long to be know they can’t do it alone. We’ve heard it in our focus groups and exemplar interviews: healthy marketplace leaders have a network of people supporting them in their life, work, and leadership. This can include mentors, coaches, spiritual directors, pastors, friends, and family members.

It’s a theme we also see throughout Scripture. One Old Testament narrative illustrates it well. After Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, he found himself in a new role—serving as judge for the people (Exodus 18:13). Fortunately, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was there to observe Moses in action. Jethro saw that Moses would quickly get burned out if he kept it up for long. He told Moses, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Exodus 18:16). And then Jethro gave Moses some advice on how to build a team to help him. From that point on, Moses had not only Jethro but also a group of capable leaders to support him in fulfilling his calling.

We Must Be Pure In Heart
Strength in numbers wouldn’t be enough to defeat evil. Merlin teaches Alexander and his knights that they also need to be pure in heart. To become like that, they have to follow the “Chivalric Code.” The code consists of four rules:
1. Honor those you love.
2. Refrain from wanton offense.
3. Speak the truth at all times.
4. Persevere in any enterprise until the end.
Failure on the part of any knight to uphold the code affects the quest for everyone.

The ancient code resembles some of our modern-day core values statements that guide many of our organizations. If we modernized the Chivalric Code, it might read something like this:
1. Love others well.
2. Pursue goodness and justice.
3. Be honest.
4. Follow through on your commitments.

Do you notice any common themes? What jumps out at me is that this code focuses on how we steward our work and care for others. Becoming a person pure of heart requires focus on something and someone other than ourselves. That’s not to say introspection and self-awareness aren’t needed. They are, but they’re not an end; they’re a means—a means to becoming the sort of person who can work with others for a purpose bigger than all of them.

As I reflect on this code, I think about several of the individuals we interviewed for our healthy marketplace leaders exemplar study. They attempted to emulate Jesus’ leadership and be pure in heart as they lead others.

Roger is one such leader. He owns a restaurant. During our interview, he told me a story about a time he had to fire a manager. [1] In fact, several of our interviewees mentioned terminating employees when talking about the challenges of trying to integrate their faith and their work. Here’s what Roger shared.

“I let my faith and upbringing and beliefs drive my day-to-day on how to treat people and how to treat people fairly but justly. There was a manager I just had to let go, a great kid. I think he was searching for something greater and was getting connected into a few ministries locally that we support heavily. It was just when you start lying in the workplace and throwing people under the bus, not okay. Unfortunately, we had to terminate this person pretty quickly. (“You typically should hire slow, fire fast” is usually something I believe in). But I want to follow up with that person, just because it’s a person that you care about; [there were] some hard things that he was going through. Regardless of what the situation was, you need to treat each person fairly and justly, whether they’ve got hard things going on at home or not, to treat everyone equal, but then still follow up with them.”

Did he do it perfectly? We’re probably not in the best position to judge. The point is Roger sought to love the manager well, pursue goodness and justice, be honest about the manager’s workplace behavior, and follow through on his commitments to his staff. He intended to be pure in heart in his dealings with his employees, and that’s the type of leader behaviors that impact people and organizations.

At the end of the movie, Alexander and his knights wonder about their ability to make any meaningful difference in the world. After all, they’re only kids. Merlin assures them they’ll have many battles to fight, and most won’t involve a sword. He encourages them: “Even if you do not wield Excalibur, you will still know what it stands for, what you stand for.” And then he closes with these words, “A land is only as good as its leaders, and you will make excellent leaders.”

We aspire to be good leaders, don’t we? Not to have our name in lights but rather to make the world a better place. This film reminds us that we can’t do it alone, and we must be pure in heart. Those are perhaps the first and most crucial steps to developing into the leaders we long to be.

[1] The individual’s name has been changed to protect his identity. The quote that follows has been edited for clarity.

Banner image by RODNAE Productions from Pexels.

Meryl Herr

Director of Research and Resources

Dr. Meryl Herr is the Director of Research and Resources at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she designs and conducts research studies that add to the understanding of what helps marketplace leaders flourish. She also oversees the team’s efforts to convert research findings into r...

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