Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Civil War

A Reel Leadership Article

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The previews for Civil War were exciting. The United States had been engulfed in a civil war that shook the foundation of the country to its core. The various factions were fighting hard against one another.

What would it spell out for the country?

Cailee Spaeny in Civil War. Young, dark haired woman holding a camera.

I went into Civil War expecting a film about the conflict caused by the breaking up of the country. Rather than that, A24 gave us a chilling look at the world of military-embedded photojournalists on a journey to reach the White House. They needed to do this quickly as rebels were also headed to the White House. Their mission? Something much more sinister: taking out the President of the United States of America (Nick Offerman).

Civil War dove deep into meaningful topics that are applicable to leadership. I hope you’ll enjoy this Reel Leadership examination of Civil War.

Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Civil War

1. Great leaders help up-and-coming leaders:

Hundreds of people gathered at a water rationing station. Police forces tried to maintain order, but they and the people desiring water were getting out of hand.

At one point, a young woman, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), steps in with a camera. She’s trying to capture a meaningful moment. That doesn’t happen as a cop hits her.

Lee (Kirsten Dunst), an award-winning photojournalist, sees this. She checks in on Jessie to make sure she’s okay. After she discovers Jessie is okay, Lee hands her a neon-yellow press vest.

What are you doing to help up-and-coming leaders? In Civil War, we see Lee checking in, comforting, and giving tools to the up-and-coming photojournalist. That’s what great leaders do.

Be prepared to step in when you see a new leader struggling. Offer comfort and words of hope. Then, give them the tools they need to thrive in the new world of leadership.

The best thing leaders can do is to raise up new leaders.

2. There are times leaders have to be detached:

One of the things Civil War pushed was the fact photojournalists had to be detached from the subjects they’re shooting. There was a young woman who had nefarious intentions. She was carrying a backpack and you sensed something bad happening.

There was going to be a suicide bombing.

The woman detonated her backpack. Bodies flew everywhere. There was chaos and blood.

Lee stayed detached and jumped into action. She began to shoot the violence. 

There are times when leaders have to be emotionally invested in their people. They have to be willing to step into the hardships and listen.

Then there are the times they have to stay detached. They have to be an outside observer or an arbiter of justice. 

Understand the times when you have to be detached from everything going on in your organization. You’ll have a good understanding of when this should happen. Listen to your gut.

3. Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson):

It’s not a story if it never gets filed.

Sammy is an overweight, weathered journalist. He’s slow-moving but wants the story just as much as Lee and her photojournalist partner Joel (Wagner Moura). The three of them are talking about their next attempt at a story. 

Lee says they’re going to DC. They want to interview the President. 

One of Sammy’s comments is that a story is not a story if it never gets filed. What does that mean?

To me, I can see this being interpreted in multiple ways. 

A vision is not a vision if it’s not shared with the organization and pursued. It can also apply to the organization’s mission. 

We have to share these things with our people. You have to constantly share (file) your mission and vision if you want people to understand where you’re going.

Be a mission and vision sharer.

4. Leadership is heavy:

Lee is in a hotel bathroom. She’s soaking in the bathtub and the scenes she’s recorded on film are coming back to her.

Lee recounts:

  • A man being hit in the head with a brick, and she takes the photo
  • A man pouring gasoline on another man, and she takes the photo
  • A man is being shot, and she takes the photo

Earlier, I mentioned that sometimes you must be detached from your emotions. It’s true but these moments of leadership are still heavy. They will weigh on you.

Process through the things that you’ve encountered as a leader. Don’t hold them in without dealing with the trauma you’ve experienced.

Leadership is heavy. Deal with it.

5. Joel:

She wants to do what we do. She wants to do what YOU do.

Jessie hitches a ride with Joel, Sammy, and Lee. Lee is furious. They’re bringing a young woman into the battlefield and putting her in danger. More than that, they’re exposing her to traumatizing situations.

Joel understands what they’re doing. He understands why Jessie wants to do what they’re doing. More importantly, Joel sees how much Jessie looks up to Lee.


Joel advocates for Jessie to tag along. He goes the extra mile. He makes the pitch.

Great leaders do more than bring new leaders along. Great leaders are willing to advocate for new leaders.

They see the passion, desire, and talent they have. They then explain this to others and bring the new leader along for the ride.

6. Lee:

We record so other people can ask the questions.

The crew needed gas, so they stopped at a gas station. The gas station had been taken over by a group of men. Regardless, they were able to get the fuel they needed.

In the meantime, Jessie had seen something along the road as they pulled into the gas station. One of the men brought her to what she had seen: two men hanging in the car wash bay.

Jessie wanted to ask questions. She wanted to take photos. But she couldn’t. She froze.

Lee comforted her. She explained the job of a photojournalist. Their job wasn’t to ask questions. Their job was to take photos, to record what is going on in the world so others can ask the questions.

There are various roles we all have. Some have the role of leader, others of production, others design, and others sales. 

Know your role. Know what and why you’re doing what you do. This can help you get through some of the challenging times of leadership.

7. Great leaders walk new leaders through their roles:

After Lee explained to Jessie the role of a photojournalist, she had Joel pull over in an old mall parking lot. We see a JC Penney store along with a downed helicopter.

Jessie and Lee get out of their vehicle. Lee walks Jessie to the downed helicopter. She then tells her to take photos of the aircraft.

Jessie had a challenging moment with the car wash. Lee helps her by bringing her to a low-stakes situation: a helicopter that had been down for quite some time. There was little emotion involved with the photos to be taken. 

This helps Jessie to get it. She begins to see things in a new light. She’s able to take the photos that need to be taken.

New leaders will be wet behind the ears. They won’t know the ins and outs of your organization or even their roles. 

As the senior leader, you have a responsibility to help the new leaders with their roles. Be willing to take the time to walk them through what is expected, how to do the job, and what they can expect.

The more you do this, the better prepared the new leadership will be.

8. Your title won’t matter to some people:

On their journey to the White House, the group comes upon an abandoned golf course. Even though winter is well past, the golf course still has Winter Wonderland light show lights and signage up. 

Despite Lee using her camera to scope out trouble, she misses an active shooter. The group has to move quickly to avoid being shot. This is when they find two men in ghillie suits. They’re also scoping out the threat.

Joel flashes his press credentials to the two men. They brushed him off. They didn’t care about his credentials.

Leaders, especially young leaders, can think their titles matter. They may be the new President of the organization or they may have stepped out of a role into a managerial role. They’re big shots now.


They can be put in their place quickly by others. 

A title is great. But you have to win the hearts and minds of those you lead. Work on doing that and then your title will mean something.

9. Jessie:

These last few days I’ve never been more scared and I’ve never felt more alive.

The trip to the White House was heavy. It placed Jessie in dangerous situations she had never dreamed of. She didn’t understand what being a photojournalist would do to her.

She felt fear. But she also felt alive. 

What she experienced could feel like a conflict of emotions but it is not. It’s something we all go through.

Leaders feel a wide range of emotions as they lead. They can feel fear, excitement, alive, dread, and more. Our emotions will run wild. 

That’s okay. We’re made to feel. 

Through it all, you’ll feel more alive than you ever have.

10. We don’t get what we expect:

The lives of photojournalists put them into insane situations. Jessie began to understand this. She also understood the dangers she would face.

That’s why she asked Lee a heavy question. Jessie asked Lee if Lee would take her photo if she were killed while taking pictures in a war zone.

Jessie thought she would die. 

Instead, the tables were flipped. Just before they get to the President, Jessie makes a brash movement and runs into a gunman. The gunman opens fire but doesn’t hit Jessie. No, Lee rushed in and took the shots meant for Jessie.

While this was happening, Jessie raised her camera. She took photos of Lee, her hero and mentor, and captured the moment of her death. 

Despite all our planning, daydreaming, and vision boarding, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We can expect increased profits, great vacations, or employees who listen. 

Yet, we can’t guarantee any of this. We often get the opposite. There are financial struggles. The vacation goes poorly. Or our employees just won’t listen to us.

We don’t get what we expect. We get what happens to us. 

Be prepared to deal with these situations as they arise. They’ll be different than you thought but you can make it through them.

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