3 Leadership Lessons Illustrated by Tom Hanks Heroes

Posted 05.02.2016

With all of the different roles he’s played in the movies, Tom Hanks is as well qualified as anyone to speculate on what makes a hero a hero.  From Army Ranger captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan to astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 to the cargo ship commander Captain Phillips and, coming later this year, “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Sully Sullenberger, Hanks has lots of experience going deep on what makes a hero.

In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross suggested to Hanks that the men he’s played had “nerves of steel,” and asked if he had ever been tested like that in his own life. Hanks answer was instructive for anyone facing a challenging situation whether it’s life threatening or not.

Here’s what he said:

“They are not men with nerves of steel. The thing that has attracted me to all of those characters is they are fighting the terror that is inside them. For example, in all the reading in much of the research that I did for Saving Private Ryan was the terror that men in command felt in combat. … I have this verbatim from a number of people … that they were afraid of making the mistake that was going to get other people killed. That is a huge burden of command, and it’s something that you have to fight and tamp down, and you can’t allow yourself a moment of hesitation, and that faith in oneself is a very — that’s the difference between success and failure. It’s not easy to do. …

All of these guys have some degree of accomplishment, but it has been learned and earned at the same time. No one is made a captain of a cargo ship without an extraordinary amount of experience behind them, and that brand of terror or loss of your own self-confidence, look, that’s something that everybody goes through at some point.”

There are two things that Hanks said that are important for leaders or anyone else who has to do difficult things to keep in mind. The first is to marshal the self-confidence needed to make a decision and move forward from it.  That’s easy to say but can be difficult to do. Where does that self-confidence come from?

Hanks alludes to it in his second point. The self-confidence comes from accomplishment that has been learned and earned. Captain Phillips, for instance, wasn’t commanding his first cargo ship when the Somali pirates came on board. He had years of experience behind him.

What Hanks says about experience reminds me of a weekend I spent on board a cutter a few years ago with the heroes of the U.S. Coast Guard. As I wrote in a series of posts after my trip, the crewman of the USS Venturous were constantly working to build their experience through drill after drill so that when a real event occurred, as it did while I was there, they had the self-confidence needed to make the right decisions.

There were three things I learned that weekend that would serve any leader that needs to make tough decisions under pressure. I cover them in depth in the original post but here’s the quick summary:

  1. Practice makes perfect – Preparation and practice pay off. Think about the heroic roles that Hanks has played. The soldiers of D-Day practiced for months before the invasion. Jim Lovell had spent thousands of hours as a pilot and astronaut both in training and on missions before Apollo 13. Captain Phillips and Sullenberger both had years and years of experience. Even if you don’t have the years behind you, you can accelerate the experience curve through well-coached practice. That’s why the Coast Guard starts doing drills as soon as their ships leave port.
  2. Work from a script but be ready to improvise – Think back to the movies where Hanks has played heroes. In every case, Miller, Lovell, Phillips and Sullenberger, the leader heroes knew how the plan was designed to work and then had the self-confidence to go off script when the situation around them deviated from the plan. The base knowledge of the plan was what gave them the confidence to improvise when they needed to.
  3. Look into the future – When you’re getting ready to do something difficult that you haven’t done before it helps to visualize how things could play out and what you would do in those circumstances. The characters Hanks played all did that. So does the Coast Guard. So do Olympic athletes for that matter. As I’ve written here before, asking yourself the simple questions, “What am I trying to do?” and “How do I need to show up to do that?” can go a long way in building the self-confidence you need to perform well under difficult circumstances.

Most of us don’t have to demonstrate our courage in the same ways as the people Tom Hanks has portrayed but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to do difficult things. We all do. Self-confidence based on preparation is what makes a hero and what can make us more effective when we have to do things that might take a little bit of heroism.