Gladiator Leadership: 7 Lessons
Adam White is CEO of Adam White Speaks, entrepreneur and author of the bestselling book, “A Leader Others Will Follow: The Power of Influence.

One of my favorite all time movies is “Gladiator” starring Russell Crowe. I’ve lost track of how many times I have watched this movie on television and on the DVD I purchased. I initially loved the movie simply for the action, the music, and the acting skills of Russell Crowe. Equally compelling was the acting skills of Commodus, the wicked Emperor of Rome played by Joaquin Rafael Phoenix.

I am not alone in my love for Gladiator as the movie grossed 457 million in sales worldwide, won multiple awards including, best picture, best actor for Crowe and three other Oscars at the 73rd Academy Awards.

As I watched this movie over and over what began to emerge are some very powerful Leadership Principles. I began to look more closely at the plot, the characters and the Leadership Lessons that could be learned.

Even in movie mode, I am always a sponge for learning and always watching programs that stimulate my thinking and help me develop as a person and as a leader.

If you have not watched this movie, I would highly recommend you do and these leadership lessons will come to life for you as well. You will want to revisit this article after having watched the movie and I also suspect that after reading this, you will be inspired to go watch it at least once.

I simply couldn’t let the opportunity pass to add value to your life and leadership by sharing these powerful leadership principles from the movie.  

Here are the 7 Leadership Lessons from Gladiator…

Human Need Drives Behavior One of the best demonstrations of the need for acceptance which drove human behavior was in the life of Commodus.  Commodus was the son of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Commodus was never on the bloody battlefield when wars were going on in Rome. While Maximus (Crowe) led the Roman army from victory to victory, Commodus was busy having a love affair with his own step-sister. Crowe was leading a nation on the battlefield and earning the trust of his men, while Commodus showed no interest in real leadership.

One of the best demonstrations of the need for acceptance which drove human behavior was in the life of Commodus.  Commodus was the son of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Commodus was never on the bloody battlefield when wars were going on in Rome. While Maximus (Crowe) led the Roman army from victory to victory, Commodus was busy having a love affair with his own step-sister. Crowe was leading a nation on the battlefield and earning the trust of his men, while Commodus showed no interest in real leadership.

He made the mistake of assuming that simply because he was a son, he was automatically next in line to rule Rome. He paid attention to birthright, but forgot about character. What drove Commodus to a place of insanity was the human need to meet up to the standard and expectations of his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Commodus had a desperate and deadly need to feel significant, to feel important, to feel wanted and special. The lack of this need created several deaths and tragedies in the life of Commodus as a result.

The unmet human need for significance, love, and connection drove Commodus to evil behavior and to a place of desperation to get it.

Do you make your employees or those that follow you feel insignificant? Are they constantly striving to meet your approval? How often do you tell those that follow you how important they are? Or how much their contributions matter to your organization?

The leadership lesson here is if we ignore the human needs in those that follow us, it can drive them to behavior patterns in the work place that affect you as a leader and the team. When you see patterns of frustration, patterns of gossip, patterns of stress, it’s a warning sign that you need to develop a deeper connection with your staff. Don’t ignore the warning signs. Hidden within human action and decision is an unmet need that is driving the behavior. If you only get this first leadership lesson from Commodus in Gladiator you have done well. One of the best ways to become an exceptional leader is to be in tune with the needs of your employees or those that follow you. Human need will always drive human behavior and when you become an expert at understanding these needs, your leadership skill will skyrocket.

Learn the Difference between Success and Significance

In the movie Commodus was seeking for Success. He thought a life of success or advancing in leadership over Rome would make him successful. He thought his title and position, which would be handed to him by virtue of his birthright, would ensure his Success in life. He thought the pathway to a life of Significance was through the acquiring of a certain position in life. Commodus didn’t learn the difference between Success and Significance.

Often people go for a position or a title and ultimately for success. But as a leader you have to develop your ability to know the difference between success and significance.

Success in fact is not a destination, but a journey. You can never be satisfied with where you are. You should always be on a path towards growth and development.

Your title, last name, birthright, or school you graduated from, doesn’t determine your success or significance. Significance is found in the lives you have added value to in your lifetime. Maximus served his country, served his emperor and served his team which were the men on the battlefield. He didn’t ask the team to go fight for him, but he led his team into battle. If someone was to die, Maximus would have been first. That’s real leadership!

Commodus wanted the glory, he wanted the position, and he wanted the good life. He rode in the finest of chariots, wore garments of beautiful purple linen. But he missed the most important leadership lesson. Leadership means to serve.

Do you serve your employees? Do you really lead them or do you ask them to fight for you? It’s difficult to earn the trust and respect of employees when you are not in front of them on the bloody battlefield of business. People never want to be managed, but they want to be lead. They want a leader that they can look up to, be inspired by, and model by example.

The leadership lesson here is not to focus on your own success, but focus on living a life of significance. One that your children will be proud of and one that your employees will remember. What we do in this life, will echo into eternity. Make your leadership count, make your life count, by adding value and significance to the lives of those that you lead.

Appreciation is the most powerful gift you can give to those that follow you. When you send out love, you will always defuse hate.

Leadership is not a Position

Maximus demonstrated loyalty, strength, leadership on the battlefield and commitment. Maximus had character and he did what was right when no one was looking. He didn’t seek the approval of the emperor but focused on becoming a leader that his men could trust. That level of commitment and discipline won the favor, respect, and admiration of Marcus Aurelius. Maximus was viewed in the eyes of the Emperor as a son. In the movie, he even tells Maximus that he should have been his own blood son.
The amazing thing about this is that Maximus was not seeking a position, a title, or some reward. He simply wanted to finish the battle and return home to his family. But great leadership created an opportunity for him to become the Emperor of all of Rome. That is how real leadership works. It’s not granted, it’s earned.

The moment we retire from trying to pursue greatness and become successful and focus on being the best we can be is the moment that a wealth of opportunities will open up to us. Success is not something you pursue, but something you attract by the person you become. Commodus pursued success and didn’t achieve it, but Maximus developed himself and his leadership ability and success became attracted to him by the person of integrity he had become.

The leadership lesson here is that Leadership is not defined by the position you are in or the title behind your name. Leadership is something that is earned in the eyes of those that follow you. Many of the leaders in this generation have changed the focus from serving to trying to become successful. Many millennials are chasing the highest office or the most pay with no real world experience. The principles of leadership don’t change whether you are a millennial or near retirement. Leadership means to serve.

Significance is the Source of Betrayal

One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when Commodus learns that Maximus might be selected as the next emperor by his father Marcus Aurelius. Commodus goes in to see his father and in tears explains that all he ever wanted was the approval and acceptance of his father. Marcus Aurelius responded with a powerful response that represents something significant. Marcus Aurelius said, “Your failures as a son, is my failure as a father”. Wow, that speaks volumes. Do you as a leader take responsibility for the failures of those that follow you? Do you look at your own leadership first to see if they may have failed because of you?

Leadership is a privilege but it also a responsibility. Do you accept responsibility for mistakes as Marcus Aurelius did? This is a very powerful leadership lesson. Sometimes when people fail, it could be because we have failed to develop them as a leader.

Back to the scene, Commodus goes to hug is father who is on his knees as this point, apologizing to Commodus. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a hug of love for his father, but rather the hug of death. Commodus’s lack of significance in his father’s eyes and lack of feeling valuable drove Commodus to hug is father so tightly that he suffocated him to death. That’s right Commodus took the life of his own father. He became distorted in his thinking and his actions because he failed to see himself as significant.

At the source of many employee disengagement problems is the human needs that are unmet both in their personal lives and in the career lives.

The powerful leadership lesson is to be empathic and sensitive to those we lead. We can never know when they are at the point of frustration, or disappointment. A simple thank you, or giving them a sense of significance at work could very well save their lives.

Appreciation is the most powerful gift you can give to those that follow you. When you send out love, you will always defuse hate. I get overwhelmed even as I write this to think that human beings can be driven to such behavior that they would take the life of someone to gain a sense of significance and self-worth. As a leader you have the power and ability to make a difference in the lives of your employees and those that follow you.

Confrontation creates Change

I teach a concept often when I speak to audiences across the country. Here it is: “You can’t change what you are unwilling to confront.” We have a default mechanism within our human DNA to fight or flight. Most often we take flight when confrontation shows up in the workplace and even in our personal lives. I am not talking about fighting but the ability to confront the things in our lives that may be blocking or stopping our progress as a person, as a leader, and as an organization. By far the best parts of this movie were the fight scenes in the Roman Coliseum. It took incredible courage to walk out into the middle of the Coliseum and be prepared to face whatever comes at you. This was what Maximus demonstrated again and again throughout the movie. Maximus wasn’t afraid to confront challenges in his life. He not only confronted challenges, but organized the few men he had working with him to come up with the victory every single time. His amazing leadership and act of heroism defied a wicked emperor and changed the culture of a nation.

If you want to change the culture of an organization, it is going to take incredible and fearless leadership to do it. Are you fearless as a leader? Are you prepared to confront change, and confront issues that has your leadership or organization at a standstill?

The word hero comes from “servo.” It means to serve something greater than yourself.

Leadership means playing the hero and taking the lead. It means you are serving something greater than yourself. That greater could be your organization, those that follow you, and even making your impact on humanity. It all starts with your ability to confront change.

As I talk to many organizations and leaders, I find one of the biggest challenges to getting better results, is being trapped in doing the same thing over and over. They won’t try something new, they won’t step outside the box of mediocrity and therefore they stay where they are. They regurgitate the same information over and over and never open their organizational windows to new and fresh ideas and information. They refuse what they need, and accept what they don’t need.

The moment we lose our ability to be average and keep doing things the same way, is the moment that we emerge as a leader others will follow. We then become leaders that change the course, culture and destiny of organizations and lives.

The leadership Lesson: Be willing to confront change.

Strength & Honor

Maximus would always greet his men with this greeting, “Strength and Honor.” Where are the leaders that demonstrate both strength and honor? It takes a tremendous amount of strength to go against the grain. It takes strength to stand up and stick with your decision when everyone is against you. It takes strength to walk alone. Maximus demonstrated strength to his team and they reflected and modeled that strength right back to him. Maximus illustrated both mental and physical strength.

Have you checked your mental strength lately? How about your physical strength? Did you know it’s virtually impossible to deal with numbness, stress, frustration, when you have a weak body? Those are all emotions that you can feel physically in your body.

The first powerful leadership lesson here is develop your mental and physical strength to Lead.

The second leadership lesson here is about: Honor.

Here is a simple definition for Honor: “What you do when no one is looking.”
What are you daily routines as a leader? What is that you do when no one is watching?

To be a leader others will follow, it means developing integrity and becoming a person that others can trust. Maximus proved to his men that he was a leader that could be trusted. He motivated them, he inspired them, and he strengthened them. They followed him not because they had to but because they wanted to.

Do you honor those that are following you?

Master these 2 Skills and you set yourself up to be a Powerful Leader: Strength and Honor.

Survival is Dependent upon Team Effort

Maximus told his team, “Whatever comes out, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together.” The key words here are “work together.” There were several scenes in the movie where Maximus organized his men on the battlefield. He told them when to attack and when to take cover.

At one point, they have to defeat enemies that were more equipped than they were. The opposing enemies rode on chariots, had many more weapons and an unfair advantage against Maximus and his team. That didn’t stop the leadership ability of Maximus. Here is the powerful lesson: We don’t always need more resources, but we need to learn how to become more resourceful. We don’t need more tools, we simply need to develop more of our internal skill.

A leader’s effectiveness is also in his or her ability to take raw materials, and take whatever they have been given and turn them into a masterpiece. Take the basic talent and develop it into leadership ability.

Don’t focus on the resources you don’t have, but focus on becoming more resourceful with what you do have. That is the test of greatness for an Influential Leader.

The additional leadership lesson here is that you can’t do it alone. It takes a team to defeat obstacles, to beat the competition, and come up with amazing results. You can only secure success and significance when you have developed your team to greatness.

Be a Leader Others Will Follow

In one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie, all of the other Gladiator’s teamed up together to help Maximus get free in an attempt to gather his army once again and defeat Commodus. The true test of your leadership will always be your ability to create loyalty and commitment from those that follow you. The lessons above have shown you some great ways to do that.

But these men gave up their lives for Maximus in the end, in order for him to go free. Maximus had lead them into battle many times over, he had proved his leadership. Maximus earned the trust of those that were following him and the end result was a group of men that sacrificed their lives for their leader. Wow that is so powerful.

Today I wrote the article to inspire you once again to be the Hero. Become a leader that others would gladly follow and honor. This generation in which we live needs great leaders like you. Everyone is searching and looking for great leadership again. Leadership that demonstrates trust, integrity, strength, honor, and values the people that they are leading. Don’t fall for the fake glory as in the case of Commodus.

By the way, Commodus’s end result was humiliation and death at the hands of Maximus. One of the most famous lines by Maximus (Crowe) was when he said to Commodus shortly before his death, “Time for honoring yourself will soon be at an end.”

When we seek to honor ourselves it is only short lived, but when we choose to honor those that follow us, it will last beyond our lifetime and echo into eternity.

Want new articles before they get published? Subscribe to our Awesome Newsletter.


Advice from top Career specialists


Articles about the Public Sector


Public Sector Trends

Pin It on Pinterest