15 Leadership Lessons And Quotes From Unbroken

A Reel Leadership Article

Unbroken is the real life story of Louis Zamperini, Zamperini was a troubled youth who channeled his mischief into the energy he needed to become an Olympic runner.

Sadly, his time in the spotlight as a runner was cut short with the start of World War 2 and his call to become an airman in the military.

In May 1943, a tragic accident happened during a flight to rescue another group of soldiers. Zamperini’s plane crashed into the ocean. There, the surviving crew did what they could to survive for a grueling 47 days lost at sea.

This story was first recounted in the book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Now, comes the movie based on the book…

leadership lessons from Unbroken

My wife and I took some time this weekend to catch the war story given the Hollywood treatment.

Honestly, I was more than a little apprehensive.


Because, it’s a Hollywood retelling of an amazing story. Hollywood tends to embellish and change the story so it’s almost unrecognizable.

Secondly, the movie was direct by Angelina Jolie-Pitt. No offense to her but I wasn’t sure whether or not Jolie could direct Unbroken.

And yet Angelina Jolie-Pitt pulled it off. She created a mesmerizing movie that kept me on the edge of my seat. It was that good.

That and Unbroken contained a slew of leadership lessons and quotes. Let’s dig into those now.

1. Pete Zamperini:

If you can take it, you can make it

Louis’ brother made this quote early on in the movie as he was trying to break Louis of his criminal ways. Pete made Louis run next to his car and reminded him that if he can take the pain, he could make it.

Leaders will face a lot of pain. We’ll see the struggles of our team members and face struggles ourselves. Some of these moments of pain will seem unbearable.

But the truth is, if we can take the pain for a little longer, we can make it.

2. Negative reinforcement can work: During one of Louis’ first runs, he’s not doing too well. He’s trailing the rest of the runners and it doesn’t look good for Louis.

That’s when his good, old brother brings in the negative words.

Pete calls Louis a dumb pago. When Louis hears this, he knows he must give it his all and show his brother he’s not.

Now, I’m not a big fan of using negative words to encourage better performance. However, the truth is, this can work in certain situations.

Know when to be positive and know when to be negative.

3. Leaders show appreciation: As Louis is leaving for the Olympics, Pete is with him. Louis goes up to his brother and thanks him for all he’s done to help him get on the right track.

Great leaders know they must appreciate those that have helped them get to where they’re at. Whether that’s a mentor or their current team, showing appreciation is a key component of great leadership.

4. Pete Zamperini:

A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory

Comfort seems to be something we all seek. When the going gets tough, many people will fall away. They’ll give up.

However, pushing through the discomfort and pain will lead you to something more.

Pete put it that glory comes after the pain. That’s true. But more comes after the pain as well.

Getting through pain gets you to glory, success, peace.

5. Rough endings are better than fatal endings: Before the fateful crash that lands Zamperini in the ocean for 47 days, he faced another rough landing.

The plane he was in had a mechanical failure and they couldn’t use the brakes to stop the plane. They needed a runway long enough to stop but there wasn’t one.

They had to land the plane anyways. So, they found a place that could possibly work and succeeded.

The landing wasn’t pretty. It was rough and left those in the plane pretty shook up.

The projects we take on won’t always have a perfect outcome. The endings to a project may be messy or sloppy but completing a project is better than not finishing.

6. Louis Zamperini:

Come on Mac. Shut up

Mac was being a Debbie Downer to Zamperini and Phil while they were floating on the lifeboat. Mac continuously told them they wouldn’t survive. They were going to die at sea.

Zamperini had a different idea in mind. He knew they were going to survive and he took bold action by telling Mac to shut up.

We may be scared to tell those around us the truth. The truth hurts sometimes but we need to hear it.

If someone needs to be quiet or told the truth, be willing to do so.

7. You can come from behind: During the Olympics, Zamperini fell to the back of the pack of runners. He was in last place.

No one thought he could come back. Yet he gave it all he had and passed many of the runners to become the lead American in the race.

Just because you’re not in the lead at this time doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance. Being in the back sets you up for an amazing comeback story.

Don’t let it go to waste.

8. Greed hurts others: While stranded on the lifeboat, Zamperini creates rules for how much the survivors will eat or drink. The rations were minimal but they would help them survive.

One morning they wake up to find that Mac had eaten all of the chocolate that was left.

This hurt Zamperini and Phil. They were counting on the chocolate to last longer than it did.

Mac’s greed caused them untold pain.

The allure of fame and money can easily cause us to do things that we wouldn’t normally do. That’s why we’ve got to be aware of what’s in our hearts and keep the greed monster at bay.

9. Try new things: After Mac ate all of the chocolate, the guys were desperate. They needed food but didn’t know where it was going to come from.

Thankfully, a seagull happened to land on the lifeboat at just the right moment and they were able to capture and kill the bird.

Though they had no way to cook it, they decided they needed to try eating the meat anyways. It was the only way to survive.

What new things do you need to try? Is the thought of trying something new scaring you?

Stop being afraid and give it a try.

10. We have to face our mortality: Zamperini, Phil, and Mac were all getting weaker and weaker the longer they were in the lifeboat. They never knew if today would be their last day.

Then Mac begins to face his mortality.

He realizes death is closing in. He asks if they think he’ll make it through the night.

We all have a limited time on this earth. Great leaders know they need to make the most of their time.

Whether that’s with their team or with family or with loved ones, leaders make the most of their time because they know they’re mortal and have faced that fact.

11. There will  be good news and bad news: Phil and Zamperini were rescued. That was the good news.

Their rescuers? The Japanese they were fighting. That’s the bad news.

Many leaders I’ve worked with only want the good news. They want to hear about the ups, never the downs.

The truth is: Good news often comes with bad news. We’ve got to be willing to hear both of them.

12. Another prisoner:

We beat them by making it to the end

Great leaders are the leaders who persevere. They keep going until the end.

13. The news you receive won’t always be accurate: Zamperini’s family had been told that he had perished in the war. They would never see their son again.

That’s the news they had received. And that news wasn’t accurate. Far from it.

Zamperini was alive and fighting. He was on a mission to survive.

How many times have you been approached with news that wasn’t accurate? Maybe it was from someone reporting to you or a news report on the TV.

We’ve all had times were the news we received wasn’t accurate.

Realize that someone reporting something doesn’t make it true.

14. Louis Zamperini:

He used to say that I was better than I am.

Another prisoner:

Who says you’re not

We’re often our own worst enemies with what we tell ourselves. We’ll fill ourselves with negative self-talk while others see the possibilities we have.

Stop being so negative about yourself and begin living up to your potential.

15. Standing up for what is right will cost you: Zamperini had the chance to live an easier life as a Japanese prisoner. All he had to do was read from a script the Japanese had crafted.

The problem? The words were false. They weren’t something Zamperini could get behind.

So, he told the newsmen he wouldn’t read from the script. Because of this, he was tossed back into the prisoner of war camp.

We’ll be tempted to make compromises and not stand up for the truth. We’ll have shiny objects placed in front of us. All for the taking.

As long as we compromise our core values.

The choice is up to you. The great leaders know that we can’t compromise on our values. Will you?

I hope you enjoyed these leadership lessons from Unbroken. It’s a great movie.

Unbroken has climbed to the top of my list of favorite war movies. The story was inspiring and we got an accurate portrayal of what happened in some of the prisoner of war camps.

If you’d like to pick up the book Unbroken, you can get a free copy from Audible by using this link. It’s well worth the listen/read.

And if you’d like more leadership lessons from Unbroken, check out my friend Brian Dodd’s breakdown of the movie. He shares some lessons I didn’t see.

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