I think I know the answer to my own question, but I have heard other opinions, especially from my own brother. The question took root in my mind as I was doing the assignment on analyzing the movie Twelve O’ Clock High for a course in my MBA program. My class was divided into teams of 4-5 each and each team must watch clips from the movie and analyze leadership behaviors of two group commanders in the US Air Force during World War II. I hadn’t watched this movie before, but it turns out this movie is a popular teaching tool in leadership programs.

It’s a great movie without a question, but two things bothered me. First, the movie depicts leadership during war which in my mind looks very different from leadership during peace. Second, all the characters in the movie except a nurse (whose role didn’t have anything to do with leadership behaviors in the movie) are men! We had decided on our team to watch the clips individually and write down our thoughts before we discussed them as a group. As I was watching the movie and having dinner, my brother called me to catch up. What would have been otherwise a nice and sweet exchange of how our respective days had been and things like that became a long and intense debate on war time vs peace time leadership. My brother conceded that leadership may look somewhat different between war and peace times, although he maintained that leadership strategies and tactics are clearer during war times and allow for sharper contrasting and drawing distinctions that make them great scenarios for teaching leadership. During times of peace, people are not necessarily looking for leadership, and therefore, leadership behaviors are largely ignored. He has an excellent point.

Yes, wars do present a clear ‘burning platform’, something some models of change management say you need to ‘create’ before embarking on change. My problem with the idea is this – there are people who take this advice literally and set nice and well-functioning platforms on fire to give themselves a burning platform for showcasing their change leadership abilities! Leadership skills by themselves are purpose-neutral. Purpose and direction are foundational. Wars are about reacting to situations, which probably came to be, because not enough preventive work was done proactively during peace time. I feel we need to focus more on proactive growth and change leadership as people, without the need for ‘enemy targets’. We can’t be looking to wars for us to recognize leadership abilities or the importance of good leadership. In modern times, the mark of a good leader is probably the war that he or she prevented. To me, peace time leadership looks like Bill and Melinda Gates. It looks like Sheryl Sandberg. It looks like Malala Yousafzai. There are leaders amidst us who go unnoticed because they do right by others every day and nudge and influence those around them in subtle yet substantial ways that you won’t even notice unless you are paying attention.

As for leadership behaviors of women – even women are studying and learning how they could be different from men’s, and how they don’t necessarily need to mirror men’s behaviors. Add to the mix, differences in leadership and followership behaviors in different cultures and societies the world over. I personally enjoy watching and learning from how different animals behave in our ecosystem! Without the course or the movie analysis assignment, I probably would not have given this topic much thought – so there – the purpose of the assignment was achieved!

[PS- the images used for this post were copied from google images. I did not see copyright statements for these images.]