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What do disparate 2011 movies like The Descendants, Margin Call, Midnight in Paris, and The Muppets have in common?

They are, along with six other films, winners of the inaugural “Bizzie” Awards, presented to the films of last year that had the best business lessons related to ethical behavior, leadership and progressive management. Michael Sansolo and I decided to create the Bizzies this year as a natural outgrowth of our book, The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies.

Since publishing the book a little over two years ago, one of the things we’ve found is that some of the best business leaders out there use movies when explaining their vision to their employees, business partners and even customers. Movies are a kind of common mythology to which many people can relate, and so they are a terrific way for business leaders to get people to coalesce around their ideas and goals.

Ten films are cited this year - not in specific categories, but each offering enduring lessons in business behavior and leadership.

And the winners are:

The Company Men follows the shattered lives of associates from a company in the throes of massive downsizing, showing us the pain of the Great Recession along with the reckless personal and business behaviors that led to these economic problems. Every detail in this movie reminds us of the basic business and family values and disciplines that some- how were cast aside when good times seemed to last forever.

The Descendants turns on whether a Hawaiian lawyer and landowner, played by George Clooney, should sell pristine island land that has been in his family for generations to developers who will turn it into an enormous commercial property. This film, directed by Alexander Payne, poses a question that every business must answer at some point in its existence: Just because you can do something, does that mean that you should do something?

The Guard, an Irish film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, starring Brendan Gleeson as an Irish policeman in County Galway. Gleeson finds himself involved in an investigation into murder and drug smuggling, and paired with an American FBI agent played by Don Cheadle. In less expert hands this might have turned into another Rush Hour, but with different ethnicity. But The Guard is much smarter than that, and nothing is quite what it appears. That’s a great lesson for every business – don’t take things at face value, and always allow people to grow beyond expectations.

Margin Call is a terrific movie about one horrible day in the life of a Lehman Bros.-like firm, but it also is filled with business lessons that go beyond the investment world. You need to discover some of them for yourself, but one thing to look for is the extent to which the people are the top are isolated from or ignorant about how day-to-day business is being conducted. They’ve lost touch with the front lines, so that when a young analyst uncovers the problem, they’re shocked. Then, like executives at so many banks and investment firms, they focus on the short term and their own survival instead of the bigger picture and implications.

Midnight in Paris is a wonderful fantasy from Woody Allen through which Owen Wilson’s dissatisfied writer is transported from 2011 to 1920s Paris, where he gets to pal around with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali and others. The movie reminds us that nostalgia has a place, but that the good old days were never as good as we think. In addition, we see how an outsider’s fresh eyes bring new insight, highlighted when Hemingway uncovers a problem in 2011 that our hero seems unable to see on his own.

Moneyball is the movie every businessperson needs to see. Based on the best seller by Michael Lewis, it recounts how the Oakland A’s managed to field a winning baseball team while spending far less on salaries than competitors. Brad Pitt, who was the driving force in the making of this film, dominates the screen as general manager Billy Beane, who delivers all the critical lessons including finding a new way to look at an old problem and understanding that the questions a business asks are every bit as important as the answers. Pitt’s scenes with his players and assistants speak volumes about creative business strategies and the need to clearly communicate a plan.

The Muppets, which features the return of the lovable characters created by the late Jim Henson, is actually loaded with business lessons. Among them: the importance of nurturing valuable assets (which did not happen in real life or in the movie, giving rise to both the plot of the film and the backstory that informed its release to theaters), and the critical role that personal passion plays in any enterprise. This latter theme also played out as both a plot point the film and in real life; writer/star Jason Segel essentially made the movie happen because he loved The Muppets and wanted them to be restored to their former big screen glory.

War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg, provides possibly the single best business metaphor of the year. The movie follows the incredible story of a horse named Joey that experiences the horrors of World War I in countless and unimaginable ways. But in the pivotal scene we see what happens when a well-trained cavalry, astride horses and armed with swords, faces off against troops armed with machine guns. That one scene reminds us of the importance of staying current with technological change and the need to fight the current competitive war, not one from the history books. Any business that believes Facebook, Google, Apple or Amazon aren’t potential competitors needs watch that one battle time and again.

The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen, illustrates the importance of finishing the job - whatever the “job” happens to be. Sheen plays a California ophthalmologist who learns that his son has died while making a spiritual pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, a route that takes thousands of people each year from France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Compelled by some need that even he does not understand, Sheen decides to complete the pilgrimage himself, to walk the hundreds of miles, carrying his son’s ashes, scattering them along the way, honoring his son’s memory by walking quite literally in his footsteps - a great cautionary note for leaders who think they can understand people and scenarios from afar.

Win-Win is a small movie with two big lessons. Paul Giamatti plays a small-town lawyer beset with financial troubles who takes an ethical shortcut to save his practice. The plan would work but for the arrival of a troubled teen who forces Giamatti to admit to his misdeed and suffer the consequences, which the lawyer realizes are not as dire as he feared. The teen provides a second great lesson when he joins the woeful high school wrestling team coached by Giamatti and shows the positive impact a single player (or employee) can have. With a new attitude and approach he improves the team’s outlook, performance and effort.

Each of these movies, Michael and I would argue, can be assigned as a kind of ‘homework’ by business executives looking to impart a relevant lesson to their employees and business partners. They offer a great opportunity for discussion and debate about where businesses are going and how they are getting there. Hopefully, this list of 2011 movies will be the starting point for a lot of great conversations.

The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies is available from Brigantine Media or from Amazon.com. It is also is available as an e-book for Kindle, iBooks or the Nook.
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