Forms of Leadership in the Film Glory

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Should leadership style be determined on the basis of the situation the leader is confronted with? Most reasonable people would agree that under different circumstances and conditions there necessitate different forms of leadership. In the film “Glory,” the leading character, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, shows various examples of exemplary leadership.

While not a great leader yet, he earned the respected of his soldier under his command and proved his loyalty to them. And with this being my first time having watched the film, “Glory” taught me how as a leader, you will have to withstand some struggles and make sacrifices; it’s not about you, it’s about your followers and putting them ahead of you.

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Sometimes this may also involve risks and you may also have to do things that are out of your character. The film is based on the real-life experiences of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit under the command of Colonel Robert Shaw, a white officer. Colonel Shaw, who came from a very privileged background and was so frightened during the Battle of Antietam that he played dead while the fighting went on, knew that he would have to establish himself as an authoritative figure in order to ready his men for battle.

These realities compounded by the fact that he was taking over an undisciplined group of men and also the fact that he had close friends directly under his command, presented an extraordinary leadership challenge for Shaw. At first, he was treating his soldiers more like slaves and not men. He was being extremely hard on them and not taking care of their needs. He was also looking down on the Major who was being respectful to them. Also, the soldiers didn’t feel like “real” soldiers because they did not have uniforms, their feet were in a horrible state because of poor shoes and they felt as if they would never see the battlefield. There were rumors going around that the colored brigade would never be able to fight because of their low status. Surprisingly, none of these issues brought the soldiers down; they still trained with passion and kept the faith. They had the goal of being able to fight set in their head and that’s what they were working towards. Colonel Shaw saw this passion, dedication and that they were not afraid to go into battle; he gained a new respect for them.

I think it was because of this, that he really decided to come around and treat them better. He fought for them to have new shoes and new uniforms. He even went so far as to get them on the battlefield so that they could prove themselves. His growing respect and faith in them then helped him gain the soldier’s respect as well as trust. I feel that Colonel Shaw’s last action put the icing on the cake for the soldiers. In their final battle, he fought in front of them and not behind them. He put his life on the line for them and died showing just how much he respected them back. Sadly, in the end, he died right beside half of his brigade, but I’m sure that he also died with pride and dignity. Colonel Shaw gained his soldier’s trust by respecting them, recognizing their strengths and rewarding them. His actions made him someone that his brigade was proud and happy to follow. One of the most powerful scenes in the film for me personally involves Denzel Washington’s character, Trip, failed attempt to desert camp and there Colonel Shaw faces an early leadership challenge by deciding on what the punishment should be.

According to the Sergeant Major, the punishment for fleeing camp would result in a public “flogging” in front of the entire regiment which Major Ford, a close personal friend of Shaw, finds disgraceful given the circumstances of the reason the union was fighting the war. Major Ford’s questioning of Shaw’s decision which could only serve to undermine Shaw’s authority, leaving him with no choice but to go on with the whipping and discipline Ford for his defiance. Most tellingly the scene goes on to show an obviously disturbed Shaw as Trip is whipped across his back which bears the horrible disfiguring scars from previous whippings from his time as a slave. As horrified as I was to watch the scene play out, the unfortunate truth is that Shaw had to make the decision to impose the standard discipline on a man who no doubt violated the rules. He knew in that moment had he showed any weakness he would lose the respect and authority of his men, especially from the white officers. Sometimes leaders are tasked with difficult decisions that require a highly directive approach in order to establish their authority. As the film goes on the men develop great discipline, a fighting spirit and with perhaps more motivation than any to win the war.

Only through effective leadership that understands how a high directive approach can evolve, over time, into a highly supportive approach once the leader has gained his followers’ respect and confidence. During one of the final scenes of the film, in an act of ultimate display of courage and leadership, Colonel Shaw charges into a Confederate fighting position exposing himself to relentless gunfire and is eventually gunned down. Let in horror and rage, Trip rallies the troop’s attempting to carry on leading the men as his fallen leader had, but is also shot and killed as the rest of the regiment follows on the mission of charging the fort. Eventually, half of the 54th Infantrymen lose their lives in the final battle. However, through the tragedy, their brave efforts didn’t die in vain, nor did their efforts go unnoticed. And as a result, the Union accepted thousands of African-American men into combat training, which played a huge part in changing the way that the war was headed. Generally, although this film addressed racism, war, and the associated consequences of both, it’s also about companionship, determination and courage.

Though much can be made about the leadership of Colonel Shaw, it could also be said that other characters who illustrated great examples of leadership. I found Trip to be one of the most multifaceted, captivating, and perhaps realistic characters in the film. Once a slave, through all his snide comments and antics he clearly carries a great deal of resentment and rage and is one of the only black characters that speaks repeatedly with bitterness. Although he is cynical and bitter most of the time, he does offer the rawest voice out of the group on issues of racial inequalities and eventually leads the protest against the unfair wages of his fellow black soldiers. Though later in the film strangely, it’s his bitterness that becomes a source of his strength. Once he finally reconciled his anger and found a higher sense of purpose, he’s able to let go of some of the pain he finally shows his true leadership skills. He realizes that his potential to empower those around him.

For instance, he says to one of his fellow black soldiers, Thomas Searles in one of the important quotes from Glory, “Let me tell you something, boy. You can march like the white man, you can talk like him. You can sing his songs; you can even wear his suits. But, you ain’t never gonna be nothing to him, than an ugly ass chimp… in a blue suit’ and as harsh as that was, it provides the perfect catalyst to motivate those around them to stand up for themselves. Trip’s conversion comes rather late in the film as he feels a growing sense of brotherhood with the men of the regiment, and Colonel Shaw. He realizes that they are fighting for a good cause and is able to put his bitterness aside to achieve a larger goal. I felt it difficult to not feel strongly about this character, especially during the scene watching him being whipped and scars on his back are displayed. And the look of both pain and defiance in his eyes as tears fell from the pain of the whip lashing across his back. It’s at this point you see his reason for his cynicism are made clear and I began to understand him. All the characters in this film have depth, but none stand out quite like Denzel Washington’s depiction of the character Trip.

He was able to reconcile some of his past with the future for African Americans. In his own way, he is one of the film’s anti-heroes and leaders who stand out as the most remarkable characters in the film. Now, of course, I would be remised if I also didn’t mention the presence of Morgan Freeman’s character, Sergeant Major John Rawlins. Rawlins set the tone of the regiment and from very early on in the film we see Rawlins as an older man who’s well respected by his men. Once joining the 54th as a regular infantryman, Rawlins is selected as the soldier responsible for reporting to Colonel Shaw to discuss how the men of the regiment were doing. After the regiment heads South, Rawlins promoted by Major Forbes and Colonel Shaw to be named Sergeant Major. Rawlins’ a fully committed soldier and willing to give his life for the cause. He shows unwavering courage because he knows his mission is bigger than himself which served to gain the respect of his fellow soldiers while keeping them in line.

John grew increasingly frustrated not only by the lack of respect from his white superiors but from the black soldiers in his troop as well. Which bring me to mention another powerful scene when he stands forward to break up a fight between Trip and Searles. Rawlins steps in to break it and says, “Look, goddamn it! The whole world gotta stomp on your face?” Trip breaks free from Rawlins grip on his shirt and replies, “Nigger, you better get your hands off me!” Rawlins snaps back, “Ain’t no niggers around here! Understand?” then Trip says, “Oh, I see, so the white man give you a couple a stripes, and suddenly you start hollerin’ and orderin’ everybody around, like you the massa himself! Nigger, you ain’t nothin’ but the white man’s dog!” And as he starts to walk away, Rawlins stops him and slaps him then says, “And what are you? So full of hate you want to go out and fight everybody! Because you’ve been whipped and chased by hounds.

Well that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain’t dying. And dying’s been what these white boys have been doing for going on three years now! Dying by the thousands! Dying for you, fool! I know, ’cause I dug the graves. And all this time I keep askin’ myself, when, O Lord, when it’s gonna be our time? Gonna come a time when we all gonna hafta ante up. Ante up and kick in like men. Like men! You watch who you call a nigger! If there’s any niggers around here, it’s you. Just a smart-mouthed, stupid-ass, swamp-runnin’ nigger! And if you not careful, that’s all you ever gonna be! In this scene, Rawlins’ true leadership abilities are revealed. There’s certainly great leadership lessons to be learned from “Glory”. There are circumstances when a more direct approach may be required in order for an effective leader to gain the respect of those they lead.

Of course, no situation is the same and the military example seen in the film may not always apply, but it’s definitely true that leaders must be aware of how they can cycle through the different stages of leadership in order to motivate others to achieve an objective. It’s often the case that an initial highly directive approach in certain situations will ease the transition into a highly supportive approach later on. This film made history real and accessible. Instead of only representing typical stereotypes of black men and soldiers, the film presents complex and realistic characters, especially Trip. Without it, the film would have fallen flat and the true message of how African American soldiers were able to rally for a cause and prove themselves, might not have been so powerful.    

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Forms of Leadership in the Film Glory. (2021, Mar 25). Retrieved from