Lessons in Leadership from The Duke

Four character measures outlined in a recent biography of actor John Wayne are at the core of what makes an effective manager.

I recently finished reading the biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend” by Scott Eyman, an extensive look at the life of one our country’s most famous and successful film stars. Growing up, I really liked John Wayne films and watched a lot of them. Some say they epitomized the Western.

Offscreen, “Duke” (the name he preferred his friends to use) held a variety of controversial opinions, which he freely expressed. Being so outspoken endeared him to some but alienated others—a risk he was apparently willing to accept throughout his career, which spanned six decades. 

Opinions and politics aside, there were four measures of Wayne’s character that continuously surfaced throughout the book. His path to stardom was not short nor easy. He worked hard and did just about anything to earn a living before he eventually became a “movie star.” Undoubtedly, this had a profound influence on his approach to life. The four resulting character measures that resurface throughout the book are:

1. John Wayne was always on time. Whether it was when he was just starting out in his career or had reached its pinnacle, he never wanted to be late—for anything. To that end, he would often arrive 30 to 40 minutes early for a meeting, film shoot, charity event or just about anything else. It was not unusual for him to be the first actor on a set, even if he had been the last one off the set the previous day. Timeliness was important to Wayne. He never wanted to disappoint or disrespect people by being late.

2. John Wayne did things right the first time. He was always prepared and became famous for being able to complete complex action scenes in one “take.” He did not want to be the cause of others’ wasted time.

This is not to say that everything Wayne did in his career was “right.” In fact, some of his business dealings and personal relationships did not work out well for him. Yet he did appear determined to work to the best of his ability at all times.

3. John Wayne had opinions, but he did not try to force his opinions on others. Many of his views were unwavering and often contrary to those of the masses. Yet, although he was vocal and often adamant about his beliefs, he did not feel the need to have others follow his lead or even agree with him. Examples in the book show that he actually encouraged others to offer their opinions and ideas, and he seemed to have genuine respect for those who did. 

4. John Wayne listened to people. Listening takes time and patience, and it sometimes is hard to do. Wayne believed that if he listened to people he might learn something that would be helpful to him, whether as an actor, director, businessman or friend. Many with whom he worked during his career felt that they could always talk to Duke, and even if he did not agree with them, he would give them the courtesy of listening.

These measures of Wayne’s character may come as a surprise to some who think of him just as an actor. It is not often that people exhibit such qualities to the extent that they are continually recognized for them by others.

I believe these four measures of character, taken together, are at the core of effective leadership. Wouldn’t we all like to work for someone who shows us respect by being on time for appointments with us? Doesn’t the most effective leader strive for success by working to the best of his ability to do things right the first time? Don’t we all want a boss who has a vision of how things should be done and a willingness to share that vision with others in a non-threatening way? Aren’t the best managers those who encourage and demonstrate a willingness to listen to the ideas of others? Even more, wouldn’t we like to have others recognize these measures of character in each of us? More than 35 years after his death, we can all take a cue from The Duke.