Saving Private Ryan Review: Top 10 Leadership Lessons from the Movie

Guest Post by Greg Boudonck

The movie Saving Private Ryan was directed by Steven Spielberg and the lead actor was Tom Hanks. Just those 2 substances alone make this a movie that anyone, and everyone should watch.

It is based on the World War II D-Day invasion. One family (the Ryan family) has four sons. All 4 are members of the armed forces, and 3 are killed during the devastation. Orders are given that the sole surviving son must be returned safely to the United States, because his other three brothers were killed in combat.

When this movie first hit the theaters, I was one of the first in line to watch it. First, it hit close to home for me since the majority of my family are from the Iowa farmlands. Second, there was another close to home situation that when the draft for Vietnam was adopted, both of my Uncles were drafted. Realizing that they could not take two sons of a farm family, the United States Army visited my Grandfather and asked him which son he would allow them to draft.

My Grandfather was a decorated hero from Pearl Harbor and this put a load of stress upon him. My Uncle Kenny stepped up and volunteered. It was very hard on my family, but all turned out well. Uncle Kenny survived Vietnam and now lives in Southern Minnesota, and Uncle Larry still farms the land that Grandpa had for many years.

Saving Private Ryan will bring both tears of sadness and tears of joy. It is a movie that every human being should watch intently and find the lessons that are taught all throughout this timeless movie.

Will Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his band of soldiers be able to locate Private Ryan and bring him safely through enemy lines? When you watch this movie, you will feel as if you are right there in the battle. If you haven’t watched Saving Private Ryan, you need to. If you have, watch it again and look for these 10 leadership lessons that are in this great movie:

Lesson #1-Lead Not Just With Words, But By Example 

This lesson is learned in the first scenes of the movie. The scenes show the boats unloading soldiers on the beaches with bullets and bombs flying all around them. The carnage is unbelievable, but that is how it was. Many so called leaders were telling their men to rush the beach while the leader was hiding. Captain John Miller (Hanks) was not that way. He rushed the beach knowing his men would follow his example. The best leaders are the ones who are willing to do what they are asking others to do. Captain Miller showed the other soldiers he was just that kind of leader the minute they hit the beaches. Even the soldiers who were frightened noticed Captain Miller’s example and it provided them courage.

 Lesson #2-Honesty Is Best 

Two of the soldiers with Captain Miller have a heated argument where they draw sidearms on each other. One is frustrated that they have to risk their lives to save a Private and the other is all about following orders (First Sergeant Horvath). Captain Miller uses complete honesty to diffuse this situation. He explains how he would much rather be back home with his wife and that he doesn’t like the orders given, but that he feels their actions may help win the war. It is through honesty that he gains more trust. He explains that he was a school teacher and this shows the other soldiers the devotion Captain Miller has for the United States and the U.S. Army. 

Lesson #3-Establish Authority & Create Purpose 

This lesson also comes from the same scene with Miller’s First Sergeant and the Private in conflict. Miller allows the Sergeant room to gain his own authority until the situation travels too far. Captain Miller steps in showing his authority and also establishing an authority pyramid. He uses wisdom and the steps he learned from Army leadership training to establish this pyramid. By doing so, the soldiers and First Sergeant Horvath gain respect for the leadership that Captain Miller establishes. In doing so, he also creates purpose. He shows that everyone on the team has a purpose no matter if they have many stripes, or just one. The leader is no more important than the private and vice versa.

Lesson #4-Do Not Question The Validity Of A Mission 

This can be a difficult lesson. This arose quite seriously when Captain Miller ordered the taking of a German Pillbox which wasn’t a part of the original mission. When death arose because of this, many of the soldiers began to question the validity of the original mission even more. As a leader and a soldier, we carry the United States flag and take an oath to defend her. Part of that defense is performing missions. Whether they seem right or wrong, ours is not one to question, but to perform. The leader is the most important person in this process as all will follow their lead. We, as leaders, can build validity in a mission, or tear it down by our words and actions whether spoken or unspoken. We must always remember that all eyes are on us as leaders.

Lesson #5-Learn From Your Mistakes 

Captain Miller realized that attacking, and taking the German Pillbox was a mistake. He immediately learned from it as you will see from later movie scenes. He had diverted from the original mission slightly, but he didn’t allow this mistake to overwhelm him. He learned from it and then proceeded to “get on” with the original mission. We all will make mistakes, but what we do with them is what will define us as leaders. Someone once said that if you don’t make any mistakes, you are not working hard enough. The key is learning from those mistakes and not committing them again. Remember the quote, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Lesson #6-The Leader Is Willing To Make Quick, Critical Decisions 

In the taking of the German pillbox, one Nazi soldier was taken captive. This soldier had killed one of the soldiers under Captain Miller’s command. The majority of soldiers wanted to just kill the German soldier. Captain Miller had to make a decision. He had essentially 3 choices:

  • Take the soldier as captive which would put his team in more danger dragging a prisoner of war with them.
  • Listen to his men and shoot the prisoner breaking the rules of war.
  • Let the prisoner go.

If you watched the movie, you know the answer. Hanks (Captain Miller) chose, against his soldier’s wishes, to blindfold the prisoner and let him walk free. Part of this comes from Corporal Upham’s insistence, which was odd since he seemed intent on killing everything throughout the first parts of the movie. This was the best decision at the moment. He could not take him with them to find Private Ryan, and sanctity of life is a part of the equation; this is why he didn’t shoot him. The hopes that he would be recaptured was all Captain Miller could consider. He made the best decision at the moment, even though it would be Captain Miller’s downfall at the end.

Lesson #7-Emotions Not Shown To Soldiers 

The situation with a soldier being killed by the German Nazi was very hard on all the men. It was probably hardest on Captain Miller, but he knew that showing that emotion could cause adverse effects on his leadership abilities. In wartime scenarios, as a leader you will feel emotions. It is difficult, but these emotions need to be bottled up until you are away from the men and women you lead. Captain Miller waited until he was alone to weep uncontrollably for the man he lost in making the decision to attack the enemy pillbox and to also allow that Nazi to walk free. I say the word emotions, because showing extreme laughter can be just as dangerous to your leadership ability as extreme crying.

Lesson #8-Leaders Can Be At All Levels 

This lesson comes when the soldiers finally locate Private Ryan. After learning of his siblings being killed in the same war he is fighting in, Private Ryan refuses to be taken back to safety. In a strong show of leadership ability from a Private, he explains that he has a mission to his fellow comrades and he must complete his duty. This situation puts Captain Miller in a difficult position and takes us back to Lesson #6: Captain Miller must make a critical decision. Captain Miller does not pressure Private Ryan to return, but instead decides they will stay and help defend the bridge that Private Ryan’s squad is ordered to do. In doing this, Captain Miller feels he and his men will be able to protect Private Ryan and help him also fulfill his obligations.

Lesson #9-Leaders Listen And Consult 

This lesson also comes when Ryan chooses not to be rescued. Before Captain Miller decides to help guard the bridge, he consults his First Sergeant (Horvath). When he does so, he shows that he also has confidence in his NCO. This creates camaraderie, and even if the leader doesn’t follow the advice of the lower level leader, it still creates a sense that the primary leader still wants to see the whole picture clearly to make the most rational decision.

As leaders, whether it is in the military or in civilian life, consulting those under us is wise. In many cases, we will see possibilities, or problems that we may not have seen. Some leaders think that asking for advice or thoughts can be perceived as weakness; the truth is: asking shows strength. The wise man seeks counsel.

Lesson #10-Lead Until Death You Part 

Tom Hanks playing Captain John Miller gave a very good lesson of this. In today’s military, many leaders neglect their leadership duties while they are planning retirement, a PCS, or new duty assignment.  Captain Miller could have given the reigns to First Sergeant Horvath at many points during the movie, but he never did. He was leading strong when the same German Nazi he had set free earlier killed him in the final scenes of the movie. He is even leading when, as he is dying he tells Private Ryan to “earn this.” This all takes us back to the opening scene of the movie when Private Ryan is visiting the grave of Captain Miller, and the very last scene of the movie when Private Ryan salutes this leader of all leaders. I must admit that I get tears every time I watch these scenes.

This shows that as leaders, we lead in our military roles, and we lead at home. As leaders, we lead until the final bell tolls. We don’t give up; we keep leading no matter the circumstances.

Concluding Thoughts 

As a person who has watched many military movies, I would have to give Saving Private Ryan 9.5 out of 10 stars. I don’t believe I have found the 10 of 10 yet, so that says a lot about this movie. The writer, Robert Rodat must have performed some very deep research. The movie was quite real from everything I know about D-Day, and the battle against German forces.

Steven Spielberg did a great job directing this wonderful movie with the great names like Tom Hanks as Captain John Miller, Matt Damon as Private Ryan, Tom Sizemore as First Sergeant Horvath and many others.

Personally, I believe every military leader should be obligated to watch this movie and do a report on the leadership lessons they retrieved from it. It was written with the United States Army and Army Rangers as the role, but all branches can learn from this great movie.

Have you watched Saving Private Ryan? What leadership lessons did you gain from it? We would love to hear your thoughts and perceptions on this movie. Leave a comment below to let us know what you think.

About Greg Boudonck

Greg knew the military at a very young age. His Father was a Sergeant in the United States Air Force and Greg lived in many overseas bases and learned the military lifestyle at an early age. Greg was a member of the United States Army and stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and later at Fort Benning, Georgia. Now, as a writer, one of Greg’s favorite subjects is military. Greg now resides with the love of his life in Puerto Rico. You may want to read one of his top selling military books: “Puertorriquenos Who Served With Guts, Glory, and Honor: Fighting to Defend a Nation Not Completely Their Own”.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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5 thoughts on “Saving Private Ryan Review: Top 10 Leadership Lessons from the Movie”

  1. I have watched Saving Private Ryan many times. My father (a veteran of WW II, Korea and Vietnam who jumped into Normandy 06 Jun as a member of the 508th PIR attached to the 82nd ABN Division) and I saw it together. Though we saw many movies together, there were only two that he stayed awake to the end of the show. Saving Private Ryan, and Jaws.
    He said there was some license taken, but overall it was very accurate. The ride in the C47s, the sound of "rocks" hitting the skin of the C47, the sound of the German machine gun, and the German tank treads in need of greasing ALL made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
    It was after this movie that he started to open up about WW II.
    I will rematch Saving Private Ryan looking at leadership points, but I think you are spot on. I just never thought about it prior to your review.

  2. Theresa Williams

    Saving Private Ryan is one of the truly remarkable yet fictionalized movies about WWII. I first watched it as a freshman in high school with my history class. I think of it often still. So many of the lessons in this movie can and should be applied to all areas of life but are especially profound for the military. Two lessons you pointed out that particularly catch me are “extreme laughter can be just as dangerous to leadership ability as extreme crying” and “a wise man seeks counsel”. I will have to watch the movie again now to try and catch these lessons as they come.

    1. Theresa, I am glad that you caught those two very important parts of this lesson in leadership post from Saving Private Ryan.

      The first one: “extreme laughter can be just as dangerous to leadership ability as extreme crying” reminds me of a man who was running for President just a few years back. I cannot remember his name, but he was in a debate and broke out with an extreme laughter. His support dropped terribly, all because of one laughter. His leadership suffered, and now we hear nothing of him.

      As for the other: “a wise man seeks counsel.” It comes from one of the greatest books ever written and published. The top selling Bible gives us great leadership advice.

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