"Saving Private Ryan's" Leadership Lessons and How to Write Characters Others Want to Follow
Stories like Steven Spielberg’s historical epic Saving Private Ryan and Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers have been praised by many historians as remarkable representations of D-Day, the Battle of Normandy, and the subsequent war in Europe during World War 2.
Both are powerful tales of sacrifice, fellowship, and perseverance in the face of overwhelming adversity. They also provide incredible case studies on leadership.
Characters like Band of Brothers’ Major Winters (Damian Lewis) and Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) show courage under pressure, assertiveness, and big picture thinking.
But when it comes to writing, these characters also model specific attributes that writers can utilize to help turn their heroes into leaders that get the job done and other characters respect and want to follow.
Looking specifically at Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, here are four character attributes that make certain characters, both in life and on the page, effective leaders.
1. A Leader Rises to the Occasion
There is nothing worse than a leader who is indecisive or falters under pressure.
We can all think of leaders, both in fiction and real life, who’ve proven incapable of actually leading when it matters most. They may have the title of leadership and the knowledge, but they lack the courage, authority, and confidence, and it shows when they are tested.
They may bow to peer pressure or bow out when things get too intense. Maybe they know what to do but are simply too slow or afraid to do it. They worry too much about other people’s opinions, focus on their image rather than results, don't trust their team, or are paralyzed by fear.
When leaders hesitate or retreat, hope in any mission can be lost and our trust in their ability to lead will quickly dissipate.
This is often a recipe for defeat, but it doesn’t have to be.
Sometimes in these situations, a new leader will emerge to do what those in power have not. It doesn’t have to be an all-out insurrection or mutiny. It may just be a person stepping up, taking charge, or filling the void when other leaders falter or fade.
Believe it or not, these kinds of leaders are rare, but they do exist in some of our most important stories.
All it takes is one act of courage to move the story, like the mission, in the right direction.
Characters, like soldiers, become leaders when they don’t hesitate to do what they know is right and aren’t afraid to put themselves in the crossfire of their enemies or even other insecure leaders.
They take risks when others don’t. They see opportunity where others see defeat. And because they are willing to stand up for what they believe in, they quickly garner the respect of those just looking for someone to take charge, stand by their convictions, and lead the way.
In Band of Brothers, Easy Company turns to Dick Winters in Basic Training mainly because Captain Sobel (David Schwimmer) is so inept and insecure in his leadership. Winters is not! He’s a lot more like Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, who acts quickly, values his men more than his position, and provides clear instructions for others to follow, which they do.
Captain Miller’s decisiveness and assertiveness are essential to securing Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion and are effective throughout the mission to rescue Private Ryan (Matt Damon).
Captain Miller doesn’t break the rules or defy his orders, but he does take ownership of every situation, makes thoughtful, quick decisions, and stands by those decisions.
He may be wrong, and he isn’t afraid to admit when he’s made a mistake. However, the worst decision a leader can make is no decision at all.
For writers, if you’re trying to write a character who others are going to follow, give them an opportunity stand out. Have them be one who takes action or speaks up when others are still or silent. And give them the power to take ownership for their actions, both good and bad.
When other characters notice their confidence and decisiveness, readers will too.
2. A Leader Leads from the Front and the Back
Nelson Mandela famously stated that leaders should “lead from the back and let others believe they are in front.” This may seem counterintuitive, and in many ways it goes against the mentality held by most military leaders. However, good leaders know how to lead by example and delegate responsibility.
We will trust a leader who is bold and assertive but respect and admire one who trusts and empowers us to do the right thing.
In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller is a leader who recognizes the individual strengths of his men. He knows who’s the fastest, who’s the toughest, and who has the best shot. He assesses the situation, delegates responsibility, and trusts his men to get the job done. And while he always leads by example, he’s also not the leader who tries to do it all himself.
He fights beside his men, activates them, advocates for them to his superiors, and is willing to risk his life if it means saving theirs.
So what’s the takeaway for writers?
Put your characters in situations where they can fight with those they are called to lead. Give them an opportunity to stand up for their friends and followers. And introduce other characters for your hero to activate, invest in, encourage, and empower.
If your hero is the only one who sees and defends the cripples, bastards, and broken things of the world, acknowledging, developing, or incorporating their unique strengths into the mission when no one else will, watch how quickly they develop a following. I’m looking at you, Jon Snow!
3. A Leader is Driven by Grit and Perseverance
We will always admire a hero who is immensely skilled at what they do. Leaders can't be incompetent if they expect to maintain a following. However, perseverance and grit are often two of the most essential ingredients to success.
A hero who is willing to persevere through danger, fear, and difficulty will earn respect. They're in it until the end, and they don't quit until the mission is accomplished.
Leaders are allowed to bleed, get knocked down, and have moments of uncertainty just like the rest of us. It reminds their followers they are still human. What's most important, however, is that their followers see them maintain focus, find ways to overcome challenges, and keep moving forward.
These leaders aren’t blind or foolishly optimistic. They’re honest about what they believe in and don’t. They're honest about what they know and don't know, but they also don’t gripe about their assignments or complain about their superiors. They remain committed to completing the mission and keep the big picture in perspective.
In Saving Private Ryan, failing to rescue James Francis Ryan wouldn't mean the end of the world and certainly not the end of the war. However, the value of one human life, the mission to rescue one of their own, and the fight to preserve some sliver of innocence in one of the most horrific times of history becomes a mission worth dying for. But like any goal worth pursuing, it's not going to be easy.
In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller isn’t immune to fear. His hands get shaky, he bleeds when shot, and he feels the burden of loss when his men are wounded or killed in action. But he finds ways to manage that fear, get back up, and keep going.
He is consistent when his men are not, and he doesn’t reveal more about himself than is required.
Leaders lead best when they have a goal they believe in and have the resolve to see it through. Maybe they're faced with a bad situation or given a bad set of orders. Watch how they seek clarification, problem solve, and persevere where others fold.
4. A Leader Has a First Follower
Trailblazers are awesome, but if no one follows in their footsteps, it’s hard to call them leaders. They may be explorers. That's not the same as being a leader.
Leaders need people to lead and others to follow them, but movements only start to gain momentum when others begin to buy into their ideas, follow their instructions, and actually get on board.
That initial public support shows others that what one person is fighting for is more than a one-man mission. It can actually become something much bigger.
In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller has Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) to support his command and ensure that his orders are carried out. Horvath is loud, aggressive, assertive, and loyal to his commanding officer and friend, Captain Miller. He doesn’t take crap from anyone and is often the go-between for the Captain and the others. They gripe to him, and he in turn filters their complaints up to the Captain.
In Band of Brothers, Major Winters is Sobel’s Executive Officer at Curahee. The problem is, Sobel is so terrible at his job, even Winters’ support isn’t enough to shield him from Easy Company’s scorn.
It's also important to note that Winters doesn't blindly support Sobel either. He does his job as an executive officer, but there comes a time where even he has had enough. Integrity and effective leadership cannot be faked.
For writers specifically, here are a few things to consider:
If you want to write a character who others admire and want to follow, give them a loyal friend who stands beside them when no one else will.
Give them an early believer who sees potential in their ability or idea that others don’t.
Give them a mentor or other leader to back them or give legitimacy to their cause.
Give them a first convert.
Give them an enforcer who reinforces their position and keeps others in line.
And don’t be afraid to turn a former enemy into an ally.
If you’re looking to turn your fictional heroes into leaders, remember that all it takes is one follower to get the ball rolling. Give them an opportunity to step up when no one else will, the vision to see the value in others that have gone unnoticed, a goal worth fighting for, and the resolve to see it through.
These are just a few qualities that your characters can adopt that will make them more effective leaders both on and off the page.
Freedom is never free, and though I pray we never have to face the kind of evil and challenges the Greatest Generation had to overcome in their lifetime, we have their example, their courage, and their leadership to follow.
Their story and their bravery must never be forgotten.
Veterans of the United States of America, we thank you, we honor you, and we will never forget what you've sacrificed for this country.
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Thanks again and God Bless America