"Saving Private Ryan's" 4 Leadership Lessons and Writing Characters Others Want to Follow
Updated: 4 days ago
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 one of the most violent opening thirty minutes ever shown on the silver screen, a sequence so intense, 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 one of the most faithful depictions of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, a reminder that victory and freedom do 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 powerful tale of sacrifice, fellowship, loyalty, and perseverance in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Similar to HBO’s Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan also provides 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 get the job done and other characters respect and admire.
Looking specifically at Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, here are four of the most character attributes that make heroes, both in the field and on the page, effective leaders others want to follow.
1. Rises to the Occasion
There is nothing worse than a leader who is indecisive, slow to act, or falters 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 and the knowledge, but they lack the courage, authority, confidence, and humility, and it shows when they are tested.
They may 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 their image rather than results, don't trust their team, lack confidence in their own decisions, 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, fail, or fade.
Stories are filled with these kind of leaders.
A shepherd boy became a folk hero when he was the only one brave enough to fight a giant.
A Hobbit became a Ringbearer when he was the only one 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 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.
They become a 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 even insecure 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 all 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 doubts himself, buckles under pressure, or apologizes all the time.
Good leaders assess the situation, own their mistakes when applicable, make quick adjustments, and move on!
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 the only 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 assertiveness, confidence, and decisiveness, readers will too.
2. Leads from the Front
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 to their followers.
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.
Another way of thinking of it is, good leaders don't necessarily create more followers. They create future leaders.
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, 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, trusts 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 will eventually lead. Give them an opportunity to stand up for their friends and followers and be the first to do it. 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 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 fear or uncertainty just like the rest of us. 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. What's most important is that their followers see them maintain focus, 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 beloved hero because he never quits! Ever! The guy will go through hell (quite literally) to finish what he started and make sure the ark of the covenant or holy grail don't fall into the wrong hands.
It’s the same reason why Odysseus of Homer’s Odyssey became the heroic archetype. He withstood every test and persevered through every challenge during his ten-year journey home.
In both of these stories, the hero has a clear goal, a clear motive, and the drive to see it through. The stakes are also insanely high and cost of failure immense.
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 tiny sliver of goodness and innocence in one of the most horrific times of history is a goal worth dying for. But like any goal worth pursuing, it's never easy.
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.
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. 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.
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 strong character and effective leadership 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?
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 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, keeps others in line, 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 Jonathan, the heir to the throne, acknowledge David as the rightful king of Israel?
Frodo always had a best friend in Samwise Gamgee but he 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 that sparked a Rebellion (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).
So if you’re looking to turn your fictional heroes into leaders and game changers, 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 you and your characters can adopt that will make you more effective leaders both on and off the page.
That being said, it is important that we tell these stories, especially the ones involving the history of this great nation.
These heroes deserve our gratitude and respect. Even today, we look to the leadership of those who've made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation's freedom. Their courage led us through some of the darkest moments of the last two hundred years. And their perseverance held to what was good and true for future generations to experience and enjoy.
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, whatever happens next, 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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