Lead Like Braveheart: How to Inspire Heroic Effort From Your Employees

Your leadership style profoundly affects how your employees handle both micro and macro challenges.

Your leadership style affects whether they face the daily challenges of their jobs with whining and negativity or a positive, determined attitude. Your leadership styles affects whether your people face the major challenges brought on by the tough economy and other major challenges with fear and feeling helpless or whether they have a “Bring it on!” attitude.

Here’s a way to assess whether you bring out your team’s Inner Hero:

“Do you lead more like William Wallace, or like a 13th century Scottish nobleman?”

If you are a fan of the movie Braveheart, you understand the William Wallace reference and probably understand the question. If not, let me explain the context. After you read the context, please watch the video below.

William Wallace lived in the late 13th century and played a major role in the Wars of Scottish Independence. In the movie Braveheart, he was just a regular guy (played by Mel Gibson) who wanted to live an ordinary life as a farmer raising a family. Because of the actions of the tyrannical English king (Edward 1) who ruled Scotland at the time, he rose up and followed the path of the warrior.

His courage and willingness to stand up to tyranny animated his countrymen. His leading by example provided them a vision of what was possible.

Leadership that creates a “disengaged army”

When the rag tag collection of highlanders and simple farmers gathered on the battlefield and looked out across the field at the sheer size and might of the King Edward’s Royal Army, they knew they didn’t stand a chance. The overwhelming military might facing them from across the huge field left them frightened and dispirited.

One peasant gave voice to their collective fear when he asked out loud why they should give up their lives so the Scottish nobility would simply get more land, while they, the commoners, would continue to work that land for a pittance?

There was clearly no big “What’s in it for me?” upside for the Scottish commoners, and a huge downside. The Scottish nobility were asking the commoners to risk everything and offered no compelling reason why, nor did they show an interest in the commoners. The commoners existed to serve the nobility. The Scottish noblemen were the epitome of User Leadership rather than Servant Leadership.

Noblemen leadership in Corporate America

The Scottish noblemen were attempting to rally their rag-tag army using an approach that, hundreds of years later, would be imitated by far too many leaders. The noblemen’s exhortations were not unlike the many senior executives who try to motivate their people by telling them how important it is to “make our numbers” and reach goals that will enrich the stockholders, but offer no real sense of why the employees should care.

They don’t address the “Why” — why doing this matters to the company, to employees, to their customers, and even to the world. Because they don’t capture the imagination, nor do they demonstrate concern for the impact their plans have on their employees, they fail to inspire desire, courage or greatness in their people.

So their employees don’t care. They remain disengaged.

Back to the Scottish nobility and their army.

Not surprisingly, with no compelling “Why” and a huge downside, the men in this rag tag army were less than inspired to face such a frightening foe. The Scottish nobles had done nothing to elicit their army’s “inner hero.”

In fact, the commoners started to disperse.

Leadership that unleashes heroic effort

Then, over the hill, comes William Wallace and his small group of inspired warriors. Listen to what he says to the frightened men about to flee the battle ground. Notice how he calls out their Inner Hero by appealing both to a higher purpose — recognizing the right for all people to be free — as well as their own self-interest — the chance to be free after living for years under tyranny.

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His message, the message from someone leading by example, was far different from the Scottish noblemen’s which was essentially:

Make these huge sacrifices for us (and there’s really not a whole lot in it for you).”

Wallace’s message was this:

“Dare to face this frightening foe, and if you do, you will receive something you thirst for — freedom. Do this and you will make possible something deeply meaningful to each of us.”

Are you a William Wallace or a Scottish Noblemen?

Think of people you’ve encountered who were leaders in title only, people who were like the Scottish noblemen. They were clearly “all about them.”

Then, think of leaders who were more like William Wallace. They inspired you to be great, through their actions and their words. They led by example. They saw and called forth your Inner Hero.

They also showed how your heroic efforts would make a difference in ways that you cared deeply about.

Reflect on the difference in your motivation level and also, how you felt about yourself, when working for these two types of leaders.

Then ask yourself which leader you resemble.

How the Braveheart approach can drive your team’s Inner Hero

  1. Connect them to a higher purpose. Show your team members how they can, and do, make a difference in the world. Show them what they can do in their everyday work to make their part of the world a better place. Share stories about what they and their colleagues do that improves the lives and businesses of your customers. Challenge them to be their best — not simply for your company — but for themselves as people. Just as William Wallace tapped into the human hunger for freedom and helped his people overcome their terror of an overpowering enemy, tapping into what’s important to your people — and people in general — will call forth their Inner Hero.
  2. Don’t just focus on your goals, focus on your people. While the Scottish noblemen exhorted the Scottish army to sacrifice for something that would benefit primarily only the noblemen, William Wallace asked them to sacrifice for something that had deep meaning to them. Do this with your people. Focus on what matters to them and connect your business goals and your employees’ daily work to these intrinsic motivators. Show your concern for your team by sincerely showing you care about them as individuals with unique personalities and lives. You show you care by actively seeking feedback on how you can remove unnecessary obstacles and hassles from their work. You also show you care by making sure they have what they need to do their jobs well, rather than communicate a “Suck it up” attitude.
  3. Make sure you lead by example. A huge part of William Wallace’s influence came from the fact that he lead by example. He demonstrated incredible courage and did not ask others to do what he himself would not. Consciously reflect on what you ask of your team and then go through this list to see how well you are modeling these behaviors.
  4. Get feedback. If you are not sure whether the way you communicate and act are more along the lines of the Scottish noblemen or like William Wallace, solicit feedback — whether face to face or, more productively involving a third party, do a 360 degree survey, get a coach.
  5. Start now. If you know you need to work on this, start now. Don’t put this on your “Someday I’ll…” list. Get the process of getting feedback going right now.

The rest of the story

Oh, and by the way, the rag tag Scottish army, inspired and led by William Wallace, that had previously seen themselves as hopelessly outnumbered by the King’s Royal Army. They said “Bring it on!” — metaphorically speaking — and they won.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.


5 Comments on “Lead Like Braveheart: How to Inspire Heroic Effort From Your Employees

  1. Great post – love the Braveheart tie in you just left out the best line, “They may take our lives but they’ll never take our F R E E D O M!

  2. Great article, and great metaphor! The steps of how to lead with a “braveheart approach” are spot on – you want a manager that also focuses on their employees and employee development. I wish more managers would do this.
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  3. #1 I think more often than not, businesses don’t communicate their vision with their employees – which is vital for creating purpose in the organization. Or even if they do have a vision – often times it’s written down and put away but never actually looked at.

    #2. It’s especially important for Gen Y’s. They value work/life and growth and development more than big fancy perks or benefits. They want to have purpose in the work they do, and if they can’t get it at your company, they’ll go somewhere else they can.

    Fun read! Though I can’t say the same for the movie. I’m a bit squeemish when it comes to blood/gore…

  4. I love this post!  Of course, I also love Braveheart!  You did a great job of making the connections!  The task is so simple, yet so difficult for many to grasp!  Purpose and People make all the other steps fall into place naturally!  Have a great 4th of July David…. and yes as Scott quoted, “…they’ll never take our F R E E D O M!” 

  5. Easy to connect Leadership in this article, as Braveheart is one of my most admired movie! Please keep writing more 🙂

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