Why it Works: "Saving Private Ryan", Leadership, and Writing Characters Others Want to Follow
Updated: Jun 24
In 1998, director Steven Spielberg set out to recreate one of the largest and most ambitious military assaults in history for the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. What resulted was understandably one of the most violent opening thirty minutes ever shown on the silver screen, a sequence so intense and bloody, many people struggle to sit through it to this day.
But in all of its violence and visceral realism, Saving Private Ryan has been heralded by WW2 historians and veterans as a remarkably accurate depiction of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, reminding us all that freedom does not come without a cost.
Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat may have crafted a fictional rescue mission set against the backdrop of D-Day, but at its heart, Saving Private Ryan is a faithful account of sacrifice, brotherhood, loyalty, grit, and perseverance in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Similar to HBO’s Band of Brothers and many WW2 narratives, Saving Private Ryan also offers an incredible commentary on leadership.
Characters like Band of Brothers’ real-life Major Winters (Damian Lewis) and Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller show courage under pressure, assertiveness, and big picture thinking.
In leadership scenarios, these case studies are invaluable.
But when it comes to writing fiction, these characters also model specific attributes that writers can utilize to help turn their heroes into leaders that other characters respect, admire, and want to follow.
Looking specifically at Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, here are four of the most effective techniques to making your fictional hero a more effective leader.
1. Rising to the Occasion
There is nothing worse than a leader who is slow to act or who withers under pressure.
We can all probably 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, but they lack any real authority, confidence, or humility, and it shows when they are tested.
They bow to peer pressure and 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 perception rather than results, lack confidence in their own decisions, and are frequently 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 emerges 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 character stepping up, taking charge, or filling the void when other leaders falter, fail, or fade.
A shepherd boy became a folk hero when he was the only one willing to fight a giant.
A Hobbit became a Ringbearer when he was the only one in Middle Earth willing to take the One Ring to Mordor (The Lord of the Rings).
A teenage girl sparked a revolution for volunteering as tribute and refusing to go along with a totalitarian government’s media circus (The Hunger Games).
All it takes is one character and one act of courage to move the story in a new direction and start a movement in the process.
Characters become heroes 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 other insecure leaders. It's rarely even on their radar.
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.
They become a story’s catalyst, rallying point, and spark.
In Band of Brothers, Easy Company turns to Dick Winters in Basic Training mainly because Captain Sobel (David Schwimmer) is so inept, incompetent, indecisive, and malicious in his leadership style. Winters is not! He’s a lot more like Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, who acts quickly, adapts, 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 opening D-Day invasion and are effective throughout the mission to rescue Private Ryan (Matt Damon).
Captain Miller doesn’t necessarily 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 or he doesn't have the answers. For instance, when he fails to do his due diligence when meeting the first Private Ryan or instructs his company the attack the German fox hole where Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) gets killed, Miller has to bear the consequences of those choices.
However, the worst decision a leader can make is no decision at all. And nothing destroys trust in a leader quite like one who stalls, doubts himself, buckles under pressure, or constantly apologizes. They own their mistake, make quick adjustments, and move on!
Therefore, if you’re trying to write a character who others are going to follow, give them an opportunity stand out. Have them be the only one who takes action or speaks up when others are silent. And give them the power to take ownership for their actions, both good and bad.
When other characters notice their assertiveness, confidence, and decisiveness, readers will too.
2. Leading 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 like an oxymoron, but good leaders know how to lead by example and delegate responsibility to their followers.
It's the difference between a tyrant and a servant leader.
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, forms a plan, assigns responsibility, and trusts his men to get the job done. And while is isn’t afraid to lead from the front, he’s also not the leader who tries to do it all himself.
He fights beside his men, 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 will eventually 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! (Game of Thrones)
3. 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 in any endeavor.
A hero who is willing to persevere through fear, danger, and difficulty will earn respect.
Heroes are allowed to bleed, get knocked down, and have moments of fear or uncertainty just like the rest of us. In fact, it’s good that they do. It reminds their followers they are still human. They can lose, and because victory is never guaranteed, it makes their perseverance, commitment, and determination that much more remarkable.
It is not weakness to acknowledge vulnerability. In fact, it is incredible courageous. What’s more important, however, is that their followers see them remain focused, find ways to overcome their obstacles, 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.
Indiana Jones is a favorite hero because he never quits! Ever! The guy will go through hell (literally and figuratively) to finish what he started and make sure the treasure doesn’t fall into the hands of evil men.
It’s the same reason why Odysseus of Homer’s Odyssey probably became an early heroic archetype. He withstood every test and persevered through every challenge during his ten-year journey home.
In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller isn’t immune to fear. His hands get shaky, he bleeds when hit, 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.
His weaknesses never become an obstacle to others following him. In fact, his humanity enhances trust in his leadership.
He is consistent when his men are not, and he doesn’t reveal more about himself than is required.
Give your character a goal they believe in and maybe even one they don’t. Ask yourself what they would do in a bad situation or when given a bad set of orders. Test their response. Test their resolve. Allow them to make mistakes. Allow them to address those mistakes. Offer them safer or easier ways out and give them the courage not to take them.
4. Has a First Follower
There are plenty of studies and videos out there about the importance of 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.
Chain of command. Isn’t it beautiful?
By the way, in Band of Brothers, Winters is Sobel’s Executive Officer at Curahee. The problem is, Sobel is so terrible as a leader, 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. He does his job as an executive officer, and there comes a time where even he has had enough. But character cannot be faked.
Obviously, in a military environment, executive officers are designed to support their commanding officers. But what if you aren’t writing a story with a clear military structure or chain of command? How does the idea of the first follower work and what does it look like then?
Here are a few techniques:
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 investor or 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 or gives others the push.
And don’t be afraid to turn a former enemy into an ally.
In the Bible, David had his supporters, but what did it mean to have Jonathon, the heir to the throne, acknowledge David as the rightful king of Israel?
Frodo always had a best friend in Samwise Gamgee but didn’t gain a fellowship until Gandalf and Aragorn publicly declared their support (The Fellowship of the Ring)
Jyn Erso probably would have gone to Scarif alone, but having Cassian Andor join her attracted other freedom fighters to the cause and sparked a Rebellion (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).
So if you’re looking to turn your fictional heroes into leaders and movement makers, 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 and the vision to see the value in others that has gone unnoticed. Give them a goal worth fighting for and the resolve to see it through.
These are just a few qualities that your heroes can adopt that will make them more effective and inspirational leaders both on and off the page. I look forward to meeting them.
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Until then, stay inspired, stay healthy, and keep writing.
Until Today, Storytellers