A deep dive into three classic films and what they teach us about business ethics, integrity and leadership.

By Dr. Todd Senft
Saint Leo Center for Online Learning

"It's a Wonderful Life." "The Godfather." "12 Angry Men."

Classic movies with unforgettable characters. Resilient and compassionate George Bailey. Impulsive, violent, Sonny Corleone. The humane, analytical Juror #8.

Sure, putting your feet up and watching one of these timeless films is a great way to take a break from your online coursework.

Besides being entertaining, what value do they offer students in an online business degree program?

I believe they provide valuable insight into timely business issues including the traits of effective leaders, the role of emotional intelligence, and the importance of integrity and ethics.

"It's a Wonderful Life" (1946)

"It's a Wonderful Life" is the most heartwarming movie ever produced.

The film tells the tale of George Baily (Jimmy Stewart) whose goal as a young adult is to leave his small hometown of Bedford Falls, N.Y. to travel the world, go to college, and achieve great things. As one unforeseen circumstance after another derails his plans, he finds himself steward of the family business, the Baily Bros. Building and Loan Association.

While these events would change the course of his life, and terminate his dreams of living the life of a sojourner, George still has ultimate control over which life path to take.

Decision-making in business

George is presented with two opportunities that would allow him to follow his dreams and, as he says, shake the dust of the crummy little town of Bedford Falls from his feet.

He could simply choose to sever his relationship with the Building and Loan, which would free him to pursue his original plans of travel, college and career. This option would result in the board of directors dissolving the Building and Loan.

A more lucrative option for George is to accept a plum job offered by the rapacious local banker, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). This seemingly ideal option provides a significant salary and overseas travel. This option, like the first, also threatens the long-term viability of the Building and Loan.

Even though each option offers George a path to his dreams, he quickly repudiates both by sacrificing his own time, money, and dreams to keep the Baily Bros. Building and Loan operational and serving the needs of the community.

A case for social responsibility

At the heart of the matter, George's sacrifice is an example of social responsibility, or putting society's interests above one's own. George's motivation in choosing selflessly is to promote the long-term viability of Bedford Falls to the benefit of his friends and neighbors.

In the end, George's altruism pays enormous dividends for the community, the Baily Bros. Building and Loan, and George himself. He is personally rewarded with the love, support, and financial backing from his friends and neighbors who came together to show him their appreciation.

The bottom line

Can it be expected that social responsibility pays similar dividends in our capitalist, market-driven economy?

Studies are not unanimous regarding the economic benefits firms derive from adopting socially responsible policies. In fact, the literature is at odds over the financial benefit of social responsibility.

In spite of this debate, U.S. firms continue to invest heavily in social responsibility. It's nice to imagine that, similar to George Baily's decision-making process, they have decided to engage in socially responsible behavior not because it benefits themselves or their firms, but because it benefits the communities in which they live and operate.

"The Godfather" (1972)

Gangster movies are one of the most popular movie genres. Most of us watch these movies for the excitement and idealized romanticism of organized crime. "Good Fellas," "Scarface," and "Reservoir Dogs" come to mind as classics in the gangster class of films.

In the abundancies of hit men, wires and police taps, knee capping, and severed heads, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that these movies are all about business; albeit family business.

There is probably no better melding of business themes into a mob film than "The Godfather."

A business case for emotional intelligence

One of my favorite lessons in "The Godfather" is the importance of EI (emotional intelligence).

EI can be thought of as one's ability to understand one's own emotions and the emotions of others. EI is comprised of five dimensions:

  • Self-awareness. Being aware of one's own emotions and their impact on the environment.
  • Self-management. Self-control over one's harmful emotions and impulses.
  • Social awareness. Having empathy for other people's emotions and a keeping a spirit of service.
  • Social skills. Working, communicating, cooperating, and managing conflict with others.

High EI has been found to positively relate to high workplace performance, while low EI has been found to positively relate to poor performance. The central character in "The Godfather," Sonny Corleone (James Caan) is an exemplar for the positive relationship between low EI and low job performance.

Sonny Corleone's downfall

Sonny exhibits a number of low EI traits, specifically the dimensions of self-awareness, self-management, and social skills. These deficiencies manifest themselves in a number of ways, not the least of which is a hot temper.

Sonny, being the first-born-son of family patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), is a key figure in the family business. However, it seems somewhat evident that Don Vito would be reluctant to fully trust Sonny with managing the family business given his weaknesses in managing his own emotions.

Sonny's low EI is, in fact, his own undoing. The competing crime families leverage Sonny's low EI by provoking his temper. When Sonny responds as expected with blinding rage, they gun him down without resistance.

The bottom line

It's important to remember that business competitors will try to exploit one another's weaknesses for their own advantage. Exhibiting low EI can result in loss of trust, social status, promotion opportunities and, even worse, reputation.

Once low EI is manifested in undesirable behavior, it is very difficult to save face and restore a damaged personal brand. When emotional buttons are pushed, it's best to avoid being reactionary by taking pause of the situation, acknowledging one's feelings, controlling negative emotions and impulses, and setting a goal of managing conflict.

"12 Angry Men" (1957)

"12 Angry Men" is a gripping movie that is as much about ethical leadership as it is about a rush to judgment in a jury trial.

As 12 jurors convene to deliberate the fate of a defendant charged with murder, the jury is quick to vote for conviction of the defendant. But for the dissent of Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda), the defendant's fate would have been a foregone conclusion.

Juror No. 8 finds himself the odd-man-out, not because he thinks the defendant is innocent, but because he feels duty-bound to work through the deliberation process to arrive at a well-reasoned decision on conviction or acquittal.

Although he faces a wave of opposition from the other jurors – some of it aggressive – he does not wage a vociferous defense. Instead, he leads the 11 jurors toward their charge, resulting in a stunning reversal of opinions.

Characteristics of a good leader

Juror No. 8 demonstrates a number of traits of ethical leadership, including:

  • Justice: treating others fairly and honestly without favoritism or manipulation. Not only does Juror No. 8 remain impartial toward the evidence, but he debates the case in a manner that helps his fellow jurors arrive at their own conclusions without coercion.
  • Shared leadership: power sharing by welcoming opinions and participation of team members. Juror No. 8 shares leadership with precision amongst the other jurors. Each has his own motivation for a speedy conviction, but Juror No. 8 encourages each member to reconsider their priorities so as to be vested in the process.
  • Solicitude: showing respect, interest, concern, and empathy for subordinates. Although Juror No. 8's stance was starkly different from the other jurors' positions, he showed genuine interest in understanding their perspectives.
  • Promotes ethics and integrity: earning trust by walking the talk. Juror No. 8 was able to turn anger and frustration toward him into trust and respect. While he was clearly trying to influence the group's thinking, his approach was non-manipulative and guided by the principle of "innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

The bottom line

These are leadership behaviors that we can adopt as we interact with others in our workplaces, communities, churches, and volunteer organizations. As shown by Juror No. 8, these behaviors work as well in informal leadership roles as they do in formal roles.


With years of sales and marketing experience at companies such as Iron Mountain, Concentra and UPS, Todd Senft shares his real-world business experience with online students around the world. Some of the things he allocates time for are family, teaching, reading, volunteering, traveling, and pampering his dogs. He currently resides in Atlanta, GA with his wife Gina.



Image credits: Flickr/Creative Commons, Flickr/Creative Commons, Flickr/Creative Commons, IMDb.com

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