Perspectives on Leadership

Amazing Grace. Bristol Bay Productions, 2007. Written by Steven Knight


Starring Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce; Benedict Cumberbatch as William Pitt; Albert Finney as John Newton


This movie depicts the life of William Wilberforce, a Member of the British Parliament in the 18th century as he navigates backroom politics to end the slave trade in the British Empire. John Newton, former slave trader and author of the hymn Amazing Grace, is a confidante of Wilberforce, who inspires him to pursue a life of service to humanity. William Pitt the Younger, England’s youngest ever Prime Minister at the age of 24, encourages his friend Wilberforce to take up the fight to outlaw slavery and supports him in his struggles in Parliament.

Mentoring a Leader

I viewed this movie through the lens of authentic leadership. Northouse notes that authentic leadership is an interpersonal process in which the leadership role is relational in that it is created by leaders and followers together. The authenticity emerges from those interactions. There is a particular scene in the movie that clearly demonstrates this. William Wilberforce struggles with his desire to do either God’s work or the work of a political activist. He is urged by anti-slavery activists to assume the role of leader by choosing to do both.

We Humbly Suggest That You Do Both

Northouse notes that the authentic leader is also attuned to the intrapersonal perspective – in this case Wilberforce is motivated into a lifelong leadership role not only by those who would become his followers, but by his own conviction. His leadership behaviour develops from, and is grounded in, his own positive psychological qualities and strong ethics. He demonstrates the 4 components of authentic leadership: self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, balanced processing and relational transparency (Northouse 195).

For those searching for sound leadership in a world that sanctioned the inhumane practice of slavery, Wilberforce lived with a transparency that demonstrated explicit morality. He exemplified a strong belief that leaders should do what is right and good for their followers and for their society as a whole.

According to the literature on leadership ethics, Wilberforce lived at the level of postconventional morality in that he developed his own ethical principles that guided his behavior, specifically those principles included honoring “basic human rights as life, liberty and justice.” As per Stage 5 of the ethics model (Social Contract and Individual Rights), Wilberforce made moral decisions “based on a social contract and his own views on what a good society should be like.”

Northouse states that in Stage 5 the leader believes that “a good society supports values such as liberty and life, and fair procedures for changing them, but recognizes that groups have different opinions and values, but people need to agree on them” (Northouse 331).

Wilberforce worked tirelessly as the leader and public face of the campaign to end slavery. In fact, he dedicated his whole life to it, so much so that the stress finally caused a physical ailment that necessitated complete bedrest on several occasions. He endured incredible opposition and ridicule from opposition groups and politicians. Yet, despite many disappointing attempts to change the law, throughout his long campaign Wilberforce refused to be drawn into open revolution, as occurred in both France and the North American colonies. Rather, he held fast to his belief that people needed to agree with the legal changes necessary to abolish slavery. William Wilberforce dedicated his entire career as a politician to changing public opinion through education about the horrors of the slave trade.

This differs from Stage 6 (Universal Principles) in which an individual’s moral reasoning is “based on internalized principles of justice that apply to everyone.” This stage sanctions people acting according to their own internal rules of fairness, even if that means disobeying unjust laws (Northouse 332). In Wilberforce’s case, he vowed to not break any existing laws, but rather to change those laws. He continually sought opportunities to make lawmakers uncomfortable in the business practices of the day – he shone the light on the gritty underbelly of slavery and eventually won the day by embracing authentic leadership.

Making Others Uncomfortable

Thanks for reading and I hope I have inspired you to seek out this movie for your own personal viewing...Doris