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Leadership in the “Invictus” Movie Essay (Movie Review)

The movie “Invictus” was directed by Clint Eastwood, and it premiered in 2009. The biographical movie features two renowned actors, Matt Damon, and Morgan Freeman. “Invictus” is a film that details the events that transpired when Nelson Mandela took over as South Africa’s president in 1994. The film’s main theme is the unifying power of sports. In the film, President Nelson Mandela uses the 1995 rugby world-cup campaign to unite the divided South Africans.

The movie’s storyline is based on the book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation” by John Carlin. Both the main and the supporting actors exhibit strong leadership qualities in the course of the unfolding storyline. Nelson Mandela is the country’s leader, while Francois Pienaar is leading the Springboks. Nelson Mandela resolves to use rugby to remedy the divisions in his post-apartheid country. However, this resolve is difficult to implement because the country’s rugby team is a symbol of black oppression. Consequently, Mandela uses his strong leadership to turn rugby into the country’s symbol of unification. This paper is a critique of “Invictus” and Mandela’s character from a leadership perspective, especially in relation to the drama of human life.

The most prominent feature in “Invictus” is the use of rugby as a symbol of unity. Mandela gets the idea of using rugby as a symbol of unity when he witnesses black South Africans cheering for the English rugby team instead of their home team. Mandela remembers that when he was in prison, he too used to support opposing teams. However, Mandela recognizes that this trend was bad for the newly united South Africa. Therefore, Mandela decides to use the symbol of the national rugby team to unite his subjects.

The decision to use rugby as a symbol was quite unpopular with the majority black-population, and it was even opposed by Mandela’s chief of staff. Mandela’s ‘adamancy’ is a testament to his strong leadership skills. Mandela’s desire was to have a united South Africa, and he was willing to work against the tides of prejudice to achieve his goal. The desires of Mandela as a leader coincide with South Africa’s need for unity.

As a leader, Mandela takes on a tough challenge of redefining how South Africans viewed the Springboks. Previously, the Springboks were a symbol of apartheid and oppression. The team was dominated by white players, and to black South Africans, the ‘white team’ was just another reminder of apartheid’s mechanisms. In the end, Mandela successfully redefines rugby from being a symbol of segregation to being a symbol of unity. The reason behind this quick success is Mandela’s leadership style. First, Mandela begins by recognizing that things need to change, and he envisions this through the game of rugby. Second, the president trusts his instincts and decides to face the challenges that await his plans. The ability to do these things indicates that Mandela’s leadership is resolute, inspired, and focused (Heifetz, 1998).

One of the most captivating scenes in “Invictus” involves Mandela’s chief bodyguard Jason. Jason busts into Mandela’s office and expresses concern that some white bodyguards have reported working as part of the president’s security detail. President calmly informs Jason that the new South African government represents a new and united front. The president also informs Jason that the men who report to work are adequately trained, and the color of their skin does not affect their resume. According to Mandela, the president’s workers are also the face of the new South Africa- a rainbow nation. Furthermore, in this scene, the president tells Jason that “forgiveness liberates the soul….removes fear…it is a powerful tool” (Eastwood, 2009).

The reason why Jason is shocked by Mandela’s acceptance of white bodyguards is that it was expected that the new black leadership would sideline the white minority in its activities. Therefore, in case of a dispute between a white and a black citizen, it was expected that Mandela would side with the blacks. However, from the conversation between Mandela and Jason, it was clear that the former was not going to be taking sides when leading South Africa from the ashes of apartheid. Mandela’s stand came as a shock to both the white minorities and the black majority. The white minorities expected President Mandela’s government to be petty, corrupt, and vindictive against the former ruling elite. On the other hand, the majority black population was eager to retaliate against the oppression that had been experienced during apartheid. Mandela’s superior leadership skills enabled him to steer the country out of this division by focusing the masses towards a common goal.

In another scene, the president meets with the captain of the rugby Francois Pienaar. Even though the rugby team is expected to perform very poorly in the world championships, the president instills confidence in the captain by informing him that it is possible for the team to win. By telling the captain that the team can win, the president plants a seed of hope in Pienaar. Mandela’s inspirational leadership effectively draws Pienaar to his vision. This is evident when the captain goes home and immediately informs his wife about his meeting with the president. Leadership, as exhibited by President Mandela in this scene, involves inspiring followers to achieve their best (Northouse, 2013).

Some of the most prominent leadership qualities that are evident in this scene include humbleness, concern, and kindness. For example, the president proceeds to serve himself when the tea is brought to the table. Furthermore, the president respectfully addresses his junior staff and proceeds to show concern towards Pienaar’s ankle injury. Mandela’s behavior is not synonymous with that of most presidents, but it is a sign of unique leadership. Presidents are the ones who receive service, respect, kindness, and concern, but they rarely show these to others. Pienaar’s initial perception of the president becomes the cornerstone of their relationship throughout the movie. The rugby team captain uses his own leadership position to transfer Mandela’s vision for a united South Africa.

One characteristic of great leadership is the ability to affect organizational change. However, people’s behaviors are the secret to effecting organizational change. When people change their behaviors, systems of doing things do too. In “Invictus,” the main character is fully aware that organizational change depends on the behaviors of the citizens. In the film, Mandela understands that “organizations and institutions do not change, but people do” (Nielsen, 2005).

Therefore, the president targets sports as a tool for behavior modification. The first thing that Mandela does is to identify the behaviors that might amount to behavioral change. For instance, Mandela is aware that the captain of the rugby team might change the behaviors of the other team members. On the other hand, this behavioral change warrants the rugby team’s widespread support across South Africa. Mandela’s support of the rugby team motivates black South Africans to come together with their former oppressors. As a leader, Mandela manages to effect institutional change when they win by Springboks, a rugby team that was formerly associated with apartheid, is celebrated by South Africans of all races.

The average human being reacts in a certain way when he/she is faced with challenges. However, when Mandela is faced with challenges, he reacts by doing the unexpected. One example of this unexpectedness is when Mandela shows up at the stadium and sits in places that his security detail considers ‘unsafe.’ Mandela’s actions are unexpected because before, and after he became president, there were several assassination attempts that had targeted his life.

However, by sitting in ‘ordinary’ places at the stadium, he conveys the message of a peaceful nation to his subjects. Furthermore, Mandela is considerate of all his subjects. He is able to listen to the views of the people he disagrees with and even extend an olive branch to them. For instance, Mandela is not afraid of faulting the advice of those who are close to him, such as his chief of staff. The strength of Mandela’s leadership is also portrayed by the manner in which he handles divergent views. Even though Mandela shares divergent opinions with some of his staff members, he still finds it worthwhile to continue working with them.

“Invictus” was hailed as a critical success when it premiered mostly because of its historical relevance. The movie highlights Mandela’s unique and effective leadership. As a leader, the main character is positive, exemplary, relevant, inspirational, persistent, witty, and dedicated.


Eastwood, C. (Director). (2009). Invictus [Motion picture]. United States: Malpaso Productions. Web.

Heifetz, R. (1998). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Web.

Nielsen, J. (2005). The myth of leadership: Creating leaderless organizations. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing. Web.

Northouse, P. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Web.

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