How to lead like William Wallace

Since the day I watched the movie Braveheart, I have never looked at leadership the same way. It was such a revelation, in its own way. You see, I probably don’t watch movies like most people do, I watch them to learn something about the human species. And you sure can learn something from watching actors play the role of other humans. 

If you haven’t seen the movie Braveheart, get on your favourite movie streaming service and watch it. Don’t thank me now. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a solid rating, and it won a string of awards. Yes, it was a little factually incorrect (extremely), if you know your Scottish history, but what it lacks in accuracy, it makes up for in action and excitement. 

It’s a love story, as much as it’s a hero’s journey. It is the story of William Wallace, who was not born into nobility, but who takes on the nobility, based on their poor leadership and the abuse of power. It is a story of a peasant who led a militia to take on the might of an invading nation. Encouraging his own countrymen to stand and fight again oppression and tyranny. 

What most people don’t see, though, are the subtle leadership messages in the movie. Particularly in the key scenes. I firmly believe that movie makers are experts in the human psyche and the producers of Braveheart (Mel Gibson’s production company) nailed it. In this post, I will unpack some of the hidden messages in some of the final scenes of the movie. 

At the same time, let’s look at how you can lead like William Wallace. Especially when you are under pressure. 

1. Leadership is taken not given 

William Wallace turned up and took control. 

In one of the final scenes of the movie, the Scottish patriots (or the militia) were facing the might of the English army. Lochlan was leading the Scots, and he was trying to motivate the Scots to stay and fight. Against crazy odds. Totally outnumbered, and out weaponed. 

Lochlan thought he had situation covered. He was sitting atop his horse at the front of the Scottish army. And he was confident. Until William Wallace showed up. At that stage, no-one knew that he was William Wallace. Not even Lochlan.  

The difference is that William Wallace had a presence. He commanded respect. Wallace told people who he was, but the Scots didn’t believe him. He was not big enough to be William Wallace, who was apparently seven foot tall. 

Once he started talking, though, the Scots listened. The pressure was on, the English were coming, and there was not a lot of time to motivate the Scots. But he did. And he thanked the Scots for presenting themselves on the battlefield. He was reverent, and at the same time totally committed. He was confident, and courageous. William Wallace didn’t ask for permission to take charge, he just did. 

Leadership is not about your job title, it is about your example, and your behaviour. Your team follow you because of who you are, not because of what your job role is. 

2. Leadership is reading the field 

William Wallace called it as it was. 

For me, this is the most important five seconds of the movie, and before I tell you what William Wallace said, let me give you the scenario. It is the very next part of the movie, after William Wallace arrived on the scene. 

When Lochlan worked out it was William Wallace, he quickly shared with Wallace that the Scots were covered. They didn’t need him. They told Wallace that they had the whole situation in control. Which was interesting, because at the same time, some of the Scots were getting cold feet. They had seen the English show up on the battlefield, and it was just a little too much for some of the Scots. They were scared. They needed to be motivated. 

If you asked anyone that has watched the film what the most important line in it was, most would recite the famous line – “They may take our lives, but they will never take…. Our freedom!” But that is not the most important line in the movie. 

Fun fact, if you ever come to one of our leadership workshops, my (by far) favourite part of our workshops, is to unpack the great lines of the great business philosophers (aka movie stars or famous humans). And when you know what the lines are from each of the famous people, you have to say it with passion. Imagine the room shouting out the freedom line from Braveheart. Or that unforgettable line from Jerry McGuire… you know it… 

If you were listening carefully to William Wallace, when Lochlan was telling Wallace that it was his army, and the Scots had it under control, Wallace said – “If this is your army, why does it go?” In order words, you are not motivating this army to stay and fight. This line, for me, is the best line in the movie. And for leaders everywhere – if this is your team, why are they leaving (if they are)? 

Leadership is about being honest about the situation you are in. It is not about beating around the bush. Especially when you are under pressure, you need to be direct, and make your words count. 

3. Leadership is never giving up 

William Wallace stayed committed, even on his death bed. 

For me, the final scene in the movie sums up the life of a leader. To the very end of his life, William Wallace was committed to one thing. Freedom. Even when he was being tortured by the English, and his torturers wanted to hear his say one word – Mercy.  

It was not Wallace that said that word, though, it was the crowd. Pleading for mercy and pleading for an end to the torture. The crowd was mainly English, so it was amazing to see the impact that Wallace had on not only his own team, but also on the English.  

How truthful it is, who knows, he would not have been able to scream out, but he did. Instead of muttering the word mercy, he screamed at the top of his voice, freedom. The one word that had driven his life’s purpose, and his life’s work. He died for freedom. Like in the movie, Wallace is said to have accepted his execution without any resistance. And with a brave heart. He even made a final confession to a priest and read from the book of Psalms before his torture and execution. 

Leadership under pressure is about staying committed until the situation has passed or the work is done. For some leaders, this is never. For some leaders, building their business, their team, or the organisation is the life’s work. And it is work that they will never stop doing. 

Lead like William Wallace. Remember that leadership is taken, not given, it is about reading the field, and it is about never giving up. 

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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