Presidents, Pop Culture and Pizza

140403175Members of the Wharton Film Club continue a unique film series on campus that aims to bring the beauty of cinema together with the best of business education. The inaugural film for the 2013 Wharton Film Series was Lincoln. Winner of two Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln, the film chronicles the final four months of the president’s life as he attempts to pass the 13th Amendment.

As students, faculty and staff chowed down on the provided pizza, Stew Friedman, the Practice Professor of Management, began the discussion by announcing “Don’t judge this series on my performance today.” He didn’t need to worry. Over the course of the hour, he artfully used scenes from Lincoln to illustrate the powerful leadership principles that helped make Lincoln’s presidency a success.

Prof. Stew Friedman

Prof. Stew Friedman

Many of the key lessons are actually contained within the initial five minutes of the film, when the audience sees Lincoln discussing the Civil War with two black soldiers in the midst of preparation for the pivotal Battle of Wilmington not only as a leader but, as one student in the audience put it, also “like a chilled-out dude.” Both the class and Friedman were quick to point out that Lincoln is immediately portrayed as an accessible leader—a figure willing to listen to voices from all levels of his organization, equally at ease in the Oval Office as on the muddy frontlines.

According to Friedman, the movie also illustrates the various roles that a leader must embody to successfully manage a team. In a particularly humorous scene, Lincoln works to rein in the radical abolitionist and congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. With an anecdote to explain his stance, Lincoln lays out his reasoning for easing into abolition and ending the war, rather than blazing forward with changes. It’s a great example of asserting authority during disagreement, said Friedman. Lincoln uses a variety of tools—such as strategic use of ambiguity, explaining his purpose, asking for support and meeting his team halfway—to help overcome resistance. While Stevens brings an incredible amount of passion (and sass) to the discussion, ultimately Lincoln succeeds with his reasoning.

While many students walked away from Friedman’s discussion with a better understanding of management and leadership techniques, surely they also gained a new appreciation for our 16th president.

Editor’s note: The next film in the series, The Social Network, will be discussed Thursday, April 18, from noon to 1:15 p.m., with Professor Ethan Mollick, the Edward B. and Shirley R. Shils Assistant Professor of Management.

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