COVID Crisis Leadership Lessons From I Am Legend


In the midst of all this #socialdistancing and #covid_19 hysteria, I decided to go back in the film archives and do a leadership lessons article from Will Smith's masterpiece, I Am Legend. Unsurprisingly, there is a tremendous amount to be gleaned from this film in times like these. Based on the novella of the same name by Richard Matheson, I Am Legend, released in 2007, immediately built a huge following ultimately making over $585 million at the box office and further solidifying Will Smith's status as a global film icon.

The synopsis of the film goes:  Years after a plague kills most of humanity and transforms the rest into monsters, the sole survivor in New York City struggles valiantly to find a cure in this post-apocalyptic action thriller.

This post-apocalyptic thriller is the film doppelganger and bizarro world version of Tom Hank's Castaway - in that both films deal with maintaining hope despite extreme conditions of isolation. Will Smith delves into depths previously unmined to explore a scientist obsessed with saving what's left of humanity after a calamity of epic proportions. I Am Legend deals with the recovery of society after the worst of crises. In terms of leadership, however, this movie is all about how to focus on what you can control and influence regardless of the crisis at hand. As Stephen R. Covey so eloquently once said:

I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.

With this thought in mind, allow me to present ten leadership lessons gleaned from this illuminating and highly entertaining flick.

  1. Train the body: Early in the movie, we get a sense of Robert Neville's reality and routines. Despite being the only human left alive in what is left of New York City, he still starts every day with physical activity and exercise. In addition to burning time off the interminable clock of a neverending litany of days without hope, it keeps him grounded and in the moment. Leadership Lesson: Leadership of a team starts with leading one's self. Especially during a crisis like this one. Keeping yourself fit and focused is the key to ensuring continuous positive mentality and progress is made each day.

  2. Stimulate the mind: Neville has remained in New York with the mission to capture dark seekers and try different versions of a serum derived from his own disease immune antibodies. He remains aligned to the scientific method and has developed an elaborate sytem of testing and trials to see the effects on his animal and monster subjects. As his true purpose for living, this stimulation keeps him sharp in the face of total isolation. Leadership Lesson: COVID has massively disrupted our daily routines. That's why it is essential to reconnect to your core purpose and continue your personal development journey. Reading daily, meditating, listening to informative podcasts, watching Ted Talks, and journaling are ways to keep the mind sharp regardless of what is happening in the outside world.

  3. Maintain communications: Neville has been broadcasting a single message for years. Holding out hope that there might still be someone out there, he has crafted a message of support and solidarity for whomever might be listening. He also has a litany of video tapes recorded prior to the end of society that keep him tethered to some sort of normalcy and reality. Leadership Lesson: It is tempting due to the isolation of the current pandemic to disconnect from the world at large. However, it's of paramount importance to stay connected to the news, positive social media, your teams, and whatever inspires hope in you.

  4. Schedule downtime: Another crucial routine that Neville maintains early in the film is hitting golfballs of an airline carrier into the abandoned city. This allows him an important moment of relaxation despite the stresses of isolation and uncertainty that hound him. It also provides a non-task related opportunity for bonding with his companion and pet german shepherd, Samantha. Leadership Lesson: Dealing with crisis can be quite intense and for those of us work-a-holics may make it very difficult to disconnect. But a stressed out and stretched thin leader is little good to themselves or their people. Take out time to do something for personal enjoyment, whether that is watching a movie, listening to music, taking a walk to get some fresh air, cooking with family, or playing family games is as important as the hours you dedicate to the escalating work tasks.

  5. Plan ahead for future needs: One of Neville's key routines is to scavenge through the apartments of the deceased and vacated. This ensures that he always has enough of what he needs in terms of sustenance and entertainment. He also hunts before he needs the meet and plants a garden for his vegetable requirements. Leadership Lesson: This is not the first and certainly will not be the last crisis we face of this magnitude. Intelligent leaders will use the experience of COVID to get ahead of and prepare for the next crises. Catalogue what went wrong in this circumstance and leverage this knowledge to continuously improve before the next major disruption hits.

  6. Keep your wits about you: One of the ways that Neville remains tethered to reality is a routine where he goes to a video store (remember those?) where he has set up a series of mannequins each with an important social role for him. When one of the mannequins finds its way impossibly to another location, it leads to a near fatal break in his sanity. Leadership Lesson: There's more false and conflicting information out there about COVID than ever before. Ignore the noise and only use trusted sources like the CDC for updates. Avoid sites known for fear mongering and falsities. Pass on the same to everyone in your circle of influence. The more we make fact based decisions the better we will move through this crisis.

  7. Take care of those most important to you: Throughout the first two acts of the movie we are introduced to a crucial relationship between Neville and his dog, Samantha. Samantha is Neville's only companion but she is more than that. She represents a commitment to his tragically deceased daughter who gave him the dog prior to her demise. We see the closeness of their relationship and its obvious he has expertly trained her in addition to making sure she eats well and is properly groomed. In one harrowing scene, Neville must go into extreme danger to find Samantha in an early scene where she chases a deer into a dark seeker den. Later, he must make a difficult decision once her health is compromised. Leadership Lesson: COVID has created a whirlwind of chaos and worries in the lives of most of us. Rather than try to solve the problems of the world, start with the most important and vulnerable. If you have children or elderly family members in close proximity - these people should be your focus. Next, take care of those who truly depend on their jobs for their livelihoods - customers and customer facing teams. Carrying and supporting those who need it the most is the greatest leadership contribution you can make during this and any crisis.

  8. Accept help: After Samantha passes away, Neville, bent on revenge sets a trap for the dark seekers nearly perishes instead. Fortunately for him, he's not the only person left in New York. A woman and a child find and save him. Ultimately, they take the cure he synthesizes to the colony of the immune and use it to rebuild society. Leadership Lesson: For those not used to distance and virtual working, it may seem like you have to do everything on your own. In actuality, it is more essential than ever to leverage the talents of the total team to divide the workload, decision-making responsibility, and relevant actions that need to be taken. The truly heroic way to move through this crisis is each one helping each other get through together!

  9. Maintain a sense of humor: Due to a lack of human interaction, Neville snaps at his saviors early in their first official meeting over eggs and bacon. He redeems himself by quoting scenes from Shrek to break the ice and start over with his new friends, Leadership Lesson: Remember, it only feels like its the end of the world. In reality, we will get through this crisis, and things will get back to normal. So it's important to keep a balanced perspective about this whole thing. Finding humor even in crisis is a crucial coping mechanism that can also bond you and your teams together in solidarity.

  10. Never lose hope: Despite the desperation of his situation, Neville's routines, passion, and ability to stay focused and make progress ultimately result in his finding of the cure to the disease which nearly made humanity extinct. While not relying solely on hope to drive him, he never gives up which means he never stops believing that there is a solution to the problem at hand and he is uniquely capable to find it. He manifests the cure because of his daily routine, not despite it - luck is not involved. Leadership Lesson: One of a leader's most crucial responsibilities for his or her team is to create hope in others. This is done by making the strong link between the daily focus areas, early results, relevant facts, and evidence that the crisis is subsiding. Focus as much on the progress as the problems and you will keep your teams engaged and productive until the end of this situation.

I Am Legend has long been one of my favorite movies and in my top 3 Will Smith movies of all time. (5 out of 5 stars).


What other leadership lessons did you glean from the film? Let us know in the comments below. And please give the article a thumbs up and share with your network if you enjoyed and got anything out of it.

Omar L. Harris is Associate Vice-President and Country Manager for Allergan PLC in Brazil. He is the author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams available for purchase in ebook or print on Amazon.com. Please follow him on instagramtwitter, and/orLinkedIn for more information and engagement.

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