Three Leadership Lessons I Learned by Screenwriting

Once upon a time, I took a screenwriting course in college. I recently picked up the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and have been thinking a lot about leadership. At some point, I thought back to those screenwriting days and discovered that I’d actually learned a few great real-life leadership lessons from learning to write stories that haven’t happened about people that don’t exist. Here are a few.

1. Stay true to your characters and your story.

Just like a plot hole or an out-of-character reaction can pull your audience completely out of your movie and cause them to question everything they believed, wavering from your character and your values erodes trust and the belief you know what you’re doing.

I don’t get out to see many movies, but I remember Superman Returns in 2006 being one of the worst I’d ever spent money on. The list of flaws is long, but the huge problem I noticed is Lex Luthor’s plan to take over the world by creating a continent of kryptonite, causing the rest of the world to flood.

Luthor’s a pretty smart guy (aside from his desire to destroy Superman), but his scheme doesn’t make sense on even the most basic level – people might want to live above water, but what value would money have if you’ve destroyed the rest of the world and can no longer survive yourself? How are you going to produce fresh water, food, or housing on an island made solely of crystal?

When the smart Luthor starts off with such an idiotic plan, the film’s numerous flaws rose to the surface rather than being ignored as I enjoyed the ride. Others dropped out of the film earlier with other errors – each time you deviate from character, you create an opportunity for someone to stop believing you.

Giving inconsistent guidelines or demanding things of employees that you’re not bringing yourself is death as a leader. Employees begin to wonder why the rules are different for them than others (or you) and notice every inconsistency. Your team needs to believe you care about their success as well as your own.

2. Conflict often produces growth

Most people don’t like conflict. I don’t go seeking it myself. In order to have a truly great story, however, the protagonist (that’s you!) uses conflict to catalyze their growth and future success. In Breaking Bad, Walt gains power within the meth industry each time he takes on a new level of boss within the cartel. In Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope grows and achieves more of her goals when her smaller dreams come crashing down – she can’t get backed for city council and her friends run her campaign for her, she loses a city council job and gets a national parks job, she loses a boyfriend and finds her husband.

In each situation, the protagonist fulfills more and more of their capability through either conquering fears or fighting through failure…but they don’t avoid conflict entirely.

Conflict is an inevitable part of growing. An animal has to eat plants (or even other animals) if it wants to continue to mature and reach its potential as an adult. You can’t reach your capacity by avoiding conflict, but in order to avoid Walter White’s ending and come through the conflict in a better place, go back to No. 1 and hold true to your character and your principles.

3. Stories don’t have to be linear

And they rarely are. Encourage your employees to take time to pick up knowledge or skills they might not otherwise learn. Heck, take those opportunities to do things you otherwise wouldn’t for yourself. You never know when it’ll come in handy.

Memento would have been bland and uninteresting if it were told in a linear manner – the story needed to be completely re-written. Because each fragment loosely connected, audiences spent the whole movie in the protagonist’s shoes, trying to piece everything together. The Wire brought stories of different segments of society together, telling Baltimore’s story. Early seasons’ interactions brought depth to stories told in different parts of town in later seasons.

I didn’t just grow up deciding I wanted to be a writer or a leader. I had no idea what I wanted to do – when we did a test in high school that showed what jobs we’d be good at and enjoy, my list of potential careers was seven pages long.

I spent time in the Marine Corps because I happened to pick up the phone with a recruiter after moving back home shortly after losing my girlfriend, car, and job all within a couple months. The Marines helped me find my motivation for higher education and for helping others. It also provided the GI Bill and later the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which gave me the opportunity to attend college without going into debt.

I was going to be an urban and regional planner if it weren’t for that philosophy course I took – I had initially been focused on a major that would help me make money and have a stable career. The philosophy course caused me to re-examine my priorities and what I wanted to pursue, and I ended up in journalism. I wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t take screenwriting courses as part of the major.

(Hey, I didn’t say that connecting the dots would ALWAYS result in positive outcomes.)

Learn from everyone you can. Listen to people from all parts of your life. If you spread the roots of your knowledge out broadly, you’ll be able to pull thoughts from anywhere and be in a position to help as many people as possible.

Ultimately, that’s what being a leader is about anyway – helping others to live the best life story they possibly can.