Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider is, ostensibly, about journalism. But in truth it is a story about human beings, caught in extraordinary circumstances and how that comes to reveal their true characters.
Based on a true story, first published in Vanity Fair, Russell Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco executive, fired from his job, who then decides to blow the whistle on nefarious activities at his old company. This does not happen accidentally as he is encouraged to reveal what he knows by Lowell Bergman, portrayed by Al Pacino, the Producer of 60 Minutes. The other key character, of course, is Mike Wallace, the famed presenter of 60 Minutes, in this instance brought to Hollywood life by Christopher Plummer.
These three men come together under the desire to tell the truth about the tobacco industry. However, in the course of trying to do so they get pushback from their corporate bosses, who fear the might and influence and the power of litigation that the industry has in squashing any narratives that might damage their bottom lines.
As the story unfolds, the true leadership nature of these three characters is revealed.
In a moment, we will discuss that further. But first, here is a the trailer of the film that will give you a sense of what The Insider is all about.
So what leadership lessons can we garner from these three characters?
The approach we took to answering this questions stems from John Nicholl’s theory of leadership that leadership skills be considered from the basis of “inspirational leadership (the heart), strategic leadership (the head), and supervisory leadership (of the hands).”
Jeffrey Wigand, “The Whistleblower.”
Jeffrey Wigand is the moral anchor of the film and leads the plot line. It is from his decision to publicly reveal what tobacco companies are doing with Nicotine to make cigarettes more addictive that catalyses the narrative. He displays courage to speak the truth and despite threats and a smear campaign perpetrated against him by his old employer, Brown & Williamson, when asked by Wallace if it was worth it to blow the whistle, he says, “there are times when I feel compelled to do it. If you asked me, would I do it again, do I think it’s worth it? Yeah I think its worth it.” Full of heart, Wigand’s passion encourages Bergman’s commitment to the story. He is, quite literally, the inspiration of the story.
However, while Wigand’s passion drives him, he needs others to help him execute his desired action. He is a leader who sacrifices his job, the security of his family (his wife leaves him over the course of the story) and his own reputation to do what he believes to be the right thing. Nevertheless, he needs others to help him deliver on that passion and commitment of the public good. Enter Bergman. More about him in a moment.
Mike Wallace, “The Star News Presenter.”
We are first introduced to Wallace as he conducts a tough interview with the Hizbollah leader. “Are you a terrorist,” he asks. Immediately, the film reveals him to be a leader. As the story unfolds, and the internal dynamics at CBS when it came to the Wigand’s story come to the fore, his style and tactics come across as being informed, in part, by a desire to protect his place in the pantheon of great newsmen than take risks for tough stories that might threaten his job security. For example, he ends up agreeing with CBS Corporate’s decision to dilute the Wigand’s story. While initially excited about the Wigand interview, pressure from CBS corporate leads him to pause, telling Bergman, “in the real world when you get to where I am, there are other considerations.”
Wallace changes tack and tells CBS Corporate that they messed up and are “destroying the most respected…show in this network,” when it becomes clear that their original position becomes untenable. Wallace comes across as the type of leader who is calculating and strategic, one who is politically astute, aligning himself with the side with the most leverage. Therefore, Wallace comes across as a leader who leads with his head.
Lowell Bergmann, “The Tough Producer.”
The strongest leader in the film is Bergman. He is a man of integrity, driven by the conviction that journalism is a public good, a tool to bring about social justice. This makes him inspirational, leading with his heart.
After a diluted version of the Wigand story airs on 60 Minutes, Bergman reaches out to his source, who at this point is deeply angry. “I fought for you, and I still fight for you… you are important to a lot of people. You think about that. I’m running out of hero’s, man. Guys like you are in short supply.” This exchange perfectly encapsulates Bergman’s commitment to leading well: He see an opportunity and devises how to follow suit by taking action and also encouraging Wigand to fulfill his own potential strength.
He goes the extra mile for Wigand, protecting his source’s identity, emotional health and physical safety. When Wallace tells Bergman they will not air the full story, Bergman responds by actively putting pressure on the decision-makers. He leaks the story, which then forces 60 Minutes to reverse its decision as now everything is in the open. Bergman is willing to lead and continue to defend his beliefs when the situation escalates and threatens his values. He is inspired by the courage of his source, is strategic in trying to get the story out and smart enough to execute his strategy. That is the textbook definition of leading with your heart, head and hands.
In the end, the story did air on 60 Minutes. The lesson from the film would seem to be: If you stick to your convictions, fight for what you believe to be the right thing and are persistent in doing so, you will prevail. The good guys ultimately win. And that is the key leadership takeaway from The Insider.
Written by Brooke Stobbe, Omar Mohammed & Shola Zhaxybayeva.