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Leadership Lessons from Avatar: The Way of Water (Plus a Free Gift)

Please note: this article contains spoilers.

How long is too long to wait? When does the statute of limitations run out on an idea? These seem to be bets director James Cameron was willing to make to realize his vision for the lucrative Avatar franchise. With a story big enough to contain four sequels but needing to wait for technology to catch up to his mental picture, he diligently developed a novel approach to filming motion capture under water. After spending over ten years and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring this new phase to life - will audiences reward him and his backers like they did when Avatar was the most innovative (and highest grossing) film ever?

When we last saw the Na'vi people and their new leader Jake Sully at the end of the first Avatar, they were reveling in a newfound peace earned by defeating the sky people and banishing them from Pandora. But peace was never in the plans of those defeated and they return with a vengeance.

The synopsis of the new film goes: More than a decade after the Na'vi repelled the human invasion of Pandora, Jake Sully lives as chief of the Omaticaya clan and raises a family with Neytiri, which includes his sons, Neteyam and Lo'ak; his biological daughter, Tuk; his adopted daughter; Kiri (born from Grace Augustine's inert Na'vi avatar); and a human boy named Spider, the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch who was born on Pandora and was unable to be transported to Earth in cryostasis due to his young age. To the Na'vi's dismay, humans return to Pandora to prepare it for colonization, as Earth is dying. They erect a new main operating base named "Bridgehead City". Among the new arrivals are "recombinants", Na'vi avatars with the memories of deceased RDA marines, with Quaritch's recombinant as their leader. To redirect this threat, Jake must work with Neytiri and the army of the Na'vi race to protect their home.

On one level, this film is about the lengths one needs to go to protect one's family. But this movie is also very much about managing and adapting to changing circumstances. As HG Wells once said:

Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.

With this thought in mind, allow me to present 5 key leadership lessons from this impactful movie.

  1. Culture travels: At the beginning of the film, the Omaticaya clan is engaged in a war of attrition versus the humans of Bridgehead City - attacking their shipping routes and taking what they can to slow down their adversaries. Jake has trained his two oldest children, his sons, in his Marine ways, with varying degrees of success. He continually reinforces these core values throughout the rest of the film to provide a sense of stability despite rapidly changing circumstances. Leadership Lesson: Change is inevitable. The most successful leaders anticipate the shifting tides by manifesting a solid culture built on shared values and a core focus that provides a true north regardless of external conditions.

  2. Sacrifice for the greater good: Soon after arriving on Pandora to scorched earth - the marine Avatar clones led by Quaritch happen upon the Sully clan and take them hostage. Jake and Neytiri are able to rescue their kids but realize that they can't stay with their clan. They make the difficult decision to go into exile to save their tribe from greater atrocities while protecting what matters most - their family. Leadership Lesson: Leaders must always weigh the desires of the few versus the needs of the many. Servant leaders always prioritize the most vulnerable and most likely to be impacted by vulnerabilities and volatility. These sacrifices are worthwhile because they stabilize the operation and allow the organization to live to fight another day.

  3. Embrace the learning journey: The Sully's relocate to the islands of the Metkayina reef people. Having left behind all they know; the entire family must adapt to a new way of life containing new joys and dangers. They are ridiculed for being different - from their flimsy tails to their "demon blood" due to being half-breeds. Despite this, adopted daughter Kiri takes to this new experience like a fish to water (literally), while youngest son Lo'ak faces bullying by his new comrades. Abandoned by his peers, Lo'ak discovers a new friend in Payakan, an outcast tulkun - which is a whale-like creature the Metkayina consider their spiritual family. Leadership Lesson: The extreme discomfort that comes from a new experience is an opportunity for learning which leaders must embrace. While it is crucial to understand the priorities, processes, and practices of an unfamiliar environment it is also an opportunity to immediately contribute by questioning why things are being done the way they are. Asking why can transform the existing status quo but it is equally important to lean into the core what's and how's as well.

  4. Defend what you value most: Despite their desire to keep the peace and not bring pain to their new people - the Sully's have nowhere left to run. When the Metkayina people learn that the tulkun are under siege by the sky people (and that their children have once again been kidnapped by Quaritch, they join forces with the Sully's to protect their families and way of life. Leadership Lesson: When values and core beliefs go undefended, the culture of the organization breaks down. When we stand for nothing, we fall for anything, and this failure to stand up for what is right ultimately leads to our collective demise.

  5. Maximize your strengths. In the epic decisive battle between the Sully's and Quaritch, they sink the whaling vessel but almost perish themselves. After oldest son Neteyam is unfortunately killed saving his siblings, Kiri leans into her newfound abilities to call forth the power of deity eywa to save her mom and Tuk from drowning. Payakan (the tulkun outcast) also intercedes to save Jake and Lo'ak from a similar fate. Leadership Lesson: With so much volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that comes from a new set of circumstances it can be easy to get lost. In these moments, the best leaders lean into what they know they can count on - their strengths. Just as culture travels, so do behavioral attributes that help us get things done, influence outcomes, build relationships, and/or think strategically.

Overall, Avatar: The Way of Water is a visual spectacle and technical achievement that is epic in scope and full of heart. And with an ending that ensures greater conflict between Quaritch (and the sky people) and the Sully's (and the Na'vi) while opening interesting possibilities for their collaboration, I'm here for Avatar 3-5! Thank you, James Cameron, for not abandoning your vision (4.5 out of 5 stars from me).

Thank you, readers, and followers, for your support in 2022. Here is a heartfelt thank you from me in the form of a free ebook on succeeding in the first 90 days of any new position at any level. Please feel free to download and share with your networks as well! p.s. When this ebook gets downloaded 500 times, I will set up a free webinar to walk you through it in greater detail!


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