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Finding Leadership In The Movie Seabiscuit

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Finding Leadership in the Movie Seabiscuit

Traditionally, analysis on roles for effective leadership surround corporate or military settings with clearly defined problems, discernable issues, and areas where hypothesis can be made, models formed, predictions tested, and outcomes verified. Analyzing a film like Seabiscuit for the roles of leadership present many interesting questions about leadership and what it means to be a leader. The film Seabiscuit chronicles the lives of individuals as they become intertwined to produce an outcome, training a horse to race. At what point do individuals stop seeing themselves, in their daily lives, as individuals and begin seeing themselves as members of groups having to take on leadership and followership roles? I contend that all of the main characters in the movie are active learners, which are foundations to great leadership, but Charles Howard is the primary protagonist of the film. His leadership is borderless between business and personal experiences, constantly driving the group's success.

In order to better understand our characters, it is important to understand some of the definitions of leadership, as applied to our characters. According to Max DePree (1987) in his article, "What is Leadership?" he states:

"The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving? Do they achieve the required results? Do they change with grace? Manage conflict?" (cited in Business Leadership, 2003, pp. 65-66)

In the outset of the film we see; Tom Smith riding on the open range chasing and lassoing a wild horse with great skill, Charles Howard having left the Ford plant back east, opened a bike shop in San Francisco, as luck should have it a car breaks down in front of his shop, which he not only fixes, but makes improvements, drawing him to selling cars and becoming successful at it, and John "Red" Pollard as a young man deftly learning the skills of horsemanship, as well as learning his love of literature. All of these characters are learning and managing conflict, but they are not serving, therefore they all have the trappings of being leaders but by this definition, they have not actualized to the definition of leader. Yet as stated in the paper by Ellen Van Velsor and Victoria A. Guthrie(1998) "Enhancing the Ability to Learn from Experience" (cited in Business Leadership, 2003 pp. 224-225), "To maintain their effectiveness, people in positions of leadership must be able to learn, actively and continuously." The actors are recognizing new behaviors, engaging in a variety of development experiences, testing skills that were previously untested, trying new approaches, and developing and using a variety of learning tactics to acquire new skills as laid out in Velsor and Guthrie's Paper(1998). The fixing of the Stanly Steamer engine by Charles Howard is a prime example of this kind of growth, but Howard does not show himself as a leader until he hires on Tom Smith as the horse trainer.

Out of all the struggles we see in the film, Smith is having the hardest time with the transition of engaging in new experiences since he is not only the oldest of the group and more prone to be set in his ways, but the timeless tradition of ranching seems to bend toward the nostalgic than the future. This is most poignantly revealed when his ride is halted by barb wire fence, Tom steps from the horse and inspects the fence, only then to notice that the fence is shielding a road and a car is speeding down that road. Tom must learn to adapt or become, literally and figuratively, run over.

Charles Howard on the other hand finds himself embracing new ideas and challenging the old ones. His resolve is shaken for a period of time by the death of his son and divorce from his wife, but Howard perceivers because he is a great leader. Great leaders realize that the group is more important than the individuals. This is the same paradigm that allows soldiers and sailors to complete the mission despite incredible losses. Charles Howard finds a rebirth of confidence, sparked by the relationship he forms with Marcela. She is a confident, intelligent woman whom he immediately forms a co-leader relationship with, subsequently marrying her. It is at this point that we also see Howard challenge his own internal process, as he shifts from the automobile to horseracing. This again elucidates strong leadership skills. Kouzes & Posner (2002) in their paper, "The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership" state that exemplary leaders challenge the process. Leaders are "people who are willing to step out into the unknown....innovation comes more from listening than from telling....Sometimes a dramatic external event thrusts an organization into a radically new condition." (cited in Business Leadership, 2003, pp. 76-77) For Howard this was death, divorce, and remarriage.

Howard begins to rethink his personal views. In the prime of his automobile success that he "wouldn't spend more than five dollars for the best horse in the world." (2003) Yet as we see later on he pays $2000 to purchase the horse Seabiscuit and on numerous occasions risks



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