Warning: This article contains spoilers. LOTS of spoilers.
In three weeks’ time (that’s 21 sleeps!), the remake of The Lion King will be released in Australia.
I am VERY excited about this.
Not just because it features the voices of two of my personal heroes (Beyoncé and John Oliver), and not just because it’s based on one of the most spectacular nature documentaries of all time (!), but also because I recently discovered that it’s a film about leadership.
When the original film was released in 1994, I was in Year 12. I saw it three times at the cinema and was so obsessed with it that my classmates bestowed upon me the title of “Lion Queen” at our valedictory dinner. (Seriously!)
Twenty-five years later, I realised that what I thought was a fairly simple tale about loss, love and adventure also contains some powerful lessons about stepping up and being the leader you were born to be.
Here are some of them:
1. Real leaders LEAD
One of the most fundamental leadership lessons in The Lion King is that leadership is less about title (positional power) and more about action (personal power).
While Mufasa makes a point of informing young Simba about the order of succession and his birthright as king, the story demonstrates that simply holding a title doesn’t necessarily make them a leader. When Scar manipulates young Simba into fleeing the kingdom so that he (Scar, as second-in-line to the throne) can take over, he assumes the leadership position but does not take any leadership action. This results in the degradation of the savannah and the near-starvation of his “people”.
Ultimately, Scar is rejected as a leader and betrayed by his closest allies (the hyenas). Simba, on the other hand, demonstrates his leadership through action rather than relying on his royal pedigree, and the kingdom is restored.
2. Real leaders are courageous (when it matters)
Early on, Simba gets himself (and Nala) into a dangerous situation with the hyenas. His father, King Mufasa, comes to their rescue at the last minute.
After the incident, Mufasa sees an opportunity for a “teachable moment” and gives Simba a firm (yet compassionate) lecture about the importance of obedience. When Simba explains that he was only trying to be brave like his father, Mufasa says, “I’m only brave when I have to be.”
This scene highlights an important distinction between fearlessness and courage. As as lion, and as the King, Mufasa is assumed to be fearless. But, as he explains to Simba, “Even kings get scared”.
Mufasa demonstrates that being a leader is not so much about having a large comfort zone - it’s about having the courage to take action outside that zone when the occasion calls for it. (He adds that it’s not about looking for trouble, as Simba had done.)
The theme of courage returns later in the movie when Simba prepares to return to Pride Rock after a period of exile.
Simba is weighed down by the guilt and shame of believing that he is responsible for his father’s death. (It isn’t until the end of the film that Simba learns that Mufasa was actually murdered by his jealous, power-hungry brother, Scar.) He tells Rafiki (the royal knowledge-keeper with the bright blue butt), “Going back means that I’ll have to face my past.”
Rafiki helps shift Simba’s perspective on his past by demonstrating to him that it can be an important source of learning. He says, “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But, the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”
This enables Simba to step into his true power as leader - not by virtue of his lineage but through his willingness to overcome his fears.
3. Real leaders step up and take responsibility
I hate to break it to you, but Hakuna Matata is a cop-out.
For several years, I enjoyed Hakuna Matata as an uplifting interlude after the seriously heart-breaking death of Mufasa. I didn’t realise that this “problem-free philosophy” was (at least partly) holding Simba back from being a leader.
When Timon and Pumbaa first meet young Simba, he is broken from the experience of seeing his father killed by a herd of running wildebeest. In Hakuna Matata (it means, “no worries”), Timon and Pumbaa create a safe space for Simba to heal from the traumatic experience that sent him fleeing from his family and community. It’s light and fun, and it’s exactly what Simba needs at that time.
But later, when (as adults) Nala encounters Simba and challenges him on why he stayed away from Pride Rock for so long, “hakuna matata” becomes a weak excuse. “Sometimes bad things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Simba says, “so why worry?”
Nala quickly calls him out on this and reminds him that it is his responsibility, prompting Simba to reflect on where his priorities lie.
4. Real leaders are authentic
One of the most powerful and poignant scenes is when Simba is grappling with the decision about whether to return to fight his uncle Scar and claim his rightful place as King of Pride Rock. Mufasa appears to Simba as an apparition and tells him, “You are more than what you have become”, before reminding him that he is Mufasa’s son and therefore “the one true king”.
As the apparition disappears, Mufasa’s parting words are: “Remember who you are…”
On the surface, this could be interpreted as a simple reminder of Simba’s royal heritage and birthright as a leader. But perhaps there’s a deeper meaning to consider.
In a world where leadership is no longer based on lineage (except in some limited circumstances), “Remember who you are” could be interpreted as a call to exercise authentic leadership. It could be a reminder to tap into our true selves (not the masks that we might be inclined to put on in professional or social situations) and lead in a way that is aligned with our values and sense of personal integrity.
5. Real leaders serve their people
One of the most important leadership themes in The Lion King is less explicit than those mentioned above – the theme of service.
When Simba is a cub, Mufasa tries to impart upon him that they are all part of the circle of life. He says, “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures - from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”
Later, Simba’s journey culminates with the realisation that he must return to Pride Rock in order to serve (and save) his community, which has been suffering under Scar's ego-driven rule.
As Mufasa put it: “There’s more to being a king than getting your way all the time.”
Who would have thought that a “children’s film” could pack such a powerful punch?
Now, I’m curious…
What other films have inspired you as a leader?