Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Just Mercy

A Reel Leadership Article

Just Mercy has been on my “to-watch” list for some time. It slipped by me while it was in the theater. I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to watch this challenging film on the big screen.

Thankfully, during this time of racial unrest in the United States, many streaming platforms are offering Just Mercy for a discounted price or for free. Amazon is one of those companies offering a free rental of Just Mercy. You can also go to https://www.justmercyfilm.com/ and find the other sites offering free viewings of this important civil rights film.

Just Mercy is the true story of wrongfully convicted death row inmate Walter “Johnny B” McMillian (Jamie Foxx). McMillian is on death row for the murder of an 18-year old girl despite there being little to no evidence other than the testimony of repeat criminal Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson).

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy

A new lawyer, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), moves to Alabama to start up the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that helps wrongfully convicted people overturn their convictions. There, he hears the story of McMillian, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.).

He takes on their cases and begins to work on freeing the wrongfully convicted and change the sentences of the woefully underrepresented.

All of this takes place in a racially charged setting. The cops see African Americans as easy targets. They believe they’re above the law and will do what it takes to get a conviction, even if it is wrong.

In these times, I believe it is important to look at movies such as Just Mercy. It opens our eyes to the wrongdoings and evil hearts of men. It also lets us know injustice is still happening.

As leaders, we have the responsibility to help those who are underrepresented or lacking justice. We have a voice. We need to use it.

Today, we’re going to look at Just Mercy and the leadership lessons leaders can take away from this powerful movie.

Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Just Mercy

1. People can be wrongfully judged:

McMillian was on his way back from a job he had just completed. He worked for himself and made good money. This meant he drove a nice truck and was able to work his own hours.

Sadly, the police in the Alabama town saw McMillian as a target. It would be easy to pin a murder on him.

On his way home, the police pulled him over. They arrested him. They charged him for a murder he didn’t commit.

Everything with this picture was wrong. He had done nothing wrong and yet he was wrongfully judged and convicted.

There will be people on your team that you may not like. They may live a different lifestyle than you believe is proper or they may have a different skin tone than you. Or it could be some other reason.

Because of your dislike for people who are different than you, you can make bad judgment calls. You can wrongfully judge someone before you actually know them.

Leaders need to learn to put their biases behind them. They cannot lead well if they’re judging someone because of how they look or their lifestyle.

Be wary in judging others unjustly.

2. Henry Davis (J. Alphonse Nicholson):

That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.

Henry was a prisoner on death row. He didn’t know when his execution date would be but he knew it was coming.

Bryan Stevenson went to visit with him prior to becoming a lawyer. While there, he had news to deliver to Henry. Bryan let Henry know there was no chance of being executed in the next year.

This made Henry ecstatic. He was excited. He was going to be able to see his family again.

While the news Henry received wasn’t great news, it was good news to him.

We receive all sorts of news throughout our days. Good news, bad news, in-between news.

We can be discouraged by the bad news. It weighs us down and makes us depressed.

I want to encourage you to reframe how you think about and receive negative news. Rather than be depressed and down-trodden by the news, look at the bright side.

There’s always a bright side. If a prisoner on death row can see the positive in the negative news, you can too.

3. Bryan Stevenson:

It could’ve been me.

Bryan’s mom, Alice Stevenson (Charmin Lee), was not happy when she heard her son was moving to Alabama. She knew how dangerous it could be to be an African American in the south. She was rightfully worried for her son.

However, Bryan had a mission. He saw a reason to go to Alabama and fight for the wrongfully convicted.

After hearing Henry’s story, he saw himself in Henry. Their activities had been the same. Their lives had mirrored each other. Except one was in prison.

It could’ve been Bryan…

Take a look around at your team. Is there anyone you look down upon? Do you see anyone as less than?

You may not want to admit to this but I’m guessing there are people you see in a less than stellar light. I want you to think for a minute that this could have been you.

Did I just say that? I did. I meant it too.

You could be in the same spot as that team member you don’t like. Your life probably wasn’t much different than theirs except for a turn or two in your journey.

Don’t think you’re better than those you lead. Your path just led you to a better position.

4. Great missions attract people:

The Equal Justice Initiative didn’t have the money to pay those working for the organization. We found this out as Bryan accidentally spills the beans to Eva Eva Ansley’s (Brie Larson) husband, Kris Ansley (Sebastian Eugene Hansen).

Eva was working for the EJI but wasn’t getting paid. She didn’t think it was a big deal because of the mission behind the EJI. The EJI was helping people. That is what mattered.

The mission of your organization can attract or repel people. Great organizations have a mission that people are attracted to.

Create a mission that will attract ideal team players. The better the mission, the better the people you will attract.

One caveat: You cannot create a great sounding mission for the sake of attracting others. When people find out you’re not living out the mission, they will leave in droves.

5. Bryan Stevenson:

There’s always something we can do.

Bryan went to one of the prisons in Alabama. There, he met an inmate who had given up hope. The inmate felt like he had exhausted all possibilities.

Bryan wouldn’t let the inmate dwell on what had been done. He helped the inmate see there was still hope. They could still do something.

You may feel like you’ve exhausted all possibilities in launching a new initiative or creating a new product. Maybe you think you’ve done everything you could to find a new team member.

Let me tell you, there’s always something you can do. Even if you feel like there’s nothing else, there’s something else.

Never give up. You will find a solution.

6. You can do what’s never been done before:

McMillian shared that no inmate had ever been freed from Alabama’s death row. Everyone that had been put there had been put to death.

This crushed the hopes of death row inmates. Once convicted, they knew they were going to die.

By the conclusion of Just Mercy, we discover this changes. Bryan was able to overturn the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillian.

You will face situations that have never been attempted or accomplished before. These tasks will seem insurmountable.

The situations in front of you may seem challenging. They may have never been done before. Yet, there’s the possibility you can be the first one to accomplish them.

Don’t look at what hasn’t been done. Look at what can be or should be done.

7. We can’t cover up the ugliness forever:

Herb, Walter, and Anthony were all in their cells on death row. They had been chatting when they heard a prison guard begin to rough up another prisoner.

They stopped talking. Then they turned up the radio to cover up the noise being made.

They used the music on the radio to cover up the ugliness happening in the prison.

We do the same thing in leadership. We look for ways to cover up and ignore the things we don’t want to deal with.

Do you know what this does? This just perpetuates bad behavior, improper methods, and more.

We have to be willing to stand up to the ugliness happening in our organizations. If this is racism, speak up and get rid of those perpetrating the indecent deeds. If it is poor work habits, have the difficult conversations about what is expected.

You can’t cover up the ugliness forever. You will have to confront it at some point. It’s better to confront the ugliness early.

8. Bryan Stevenson:

Well, it isn’t my job to make people happy, it’s to achieve justice for my client.

Bryan was talking to Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall). Tommy was the District Attorney and he wasn’t happy Bryan was in his town making waves.

He believed McMillian had caused a lot of pain. Especially for the people in their town. Now, here comes Bryan digging up those old wounds.

Tommy was afraid of the pain and anger Bryan was going to bring to the surface. Bryan wasn’t. He wasn’t concerned about making people happy. He was concerned with justice.

As a leader, we may have a strong desire to make people happy. We want them to be at their best and we believe they have to be happy to do this.

This isn’t what leaders are called to do, though. Leaders are not there to make happy people. Leaders are there to make people better.

This means you will upset people. People will disagree with you. They’ll be angry and bitter.

Still, you must lead.

9. You can be different:

John McMillian (C.J. LeBlanc) is Walter’s son. He and his family had seen lawyers come and go. The lawyers went after the money ran out.

John wondered what would make Bryan different. He asked Bryan this. Bryan had an answer.

He would be different. He wouldn’t leave. Why? Because he wasn’t going to charge the McMillian family to represent Walter. He would do it for free.

Bryan was a different kind of lawyer than the McMillians had dealt with before. His difference made him unique and a good fit.

What about you? What makes you different?

Being different in leadership isn’t a bad thing. Being different is good.

You can differentiate yourself by being different. You can offer different services or treat people better.

Look at what makes you unique. Focus on the uniqueness. Lead through the uniqueness.

10. Going out of your way means a lot to those you lead:

Walter found out Bryan had gone out to visit his family. His family lived outside of the town and took a lot of time to get to.

This meant Bryan had to give something up to go talk to them. This also meant he was investing himself in Walter’s family.

Do you know what this did? This left a positive impression on Walter.

Walter began to see Bryan as an ally.

You will have a choice as you lead others. You can choose to do the bare minimum or you can choose to go out of your way.

I want to encourage you to go out of your way for your team members. Every time you do, you will endear them to you.

If they have a beloved pet pass away, send flowers. If their spouse is sick, send a gift. If their child is struggling in school, see how you can help.

You will make yourself an ally to those you go out of your way for.

11. Leaders don’t always win:

Bryan had taken up Herb’s case. He was hoping to get a stay of execution. He failed.

Herb was denied an extension. He was scheduled to be executed.

This weighed heavily on Bryan. He believed he could save him. He couldn’t.

Your most recent project may not have been a success. You may not have seen the results you hoped for from the latest launch. Or you might have lost 4 team members after a leadership shakeup.

These may be losses. They may hurt. But that’s okay.

Leaders don’t always win. They have failures. What they do though is get back up.

Get back up when you lose.

12. Walter McMillian:

If they take me to that chair tonight, I’m a go out smiling ’cause I got my truth back. You gave me that. You gave it to my family.

Walter wasn’t free yet but he was at peace. After Ralph Myers admits to lying to the court, a weight was lifted off of Walter’s chest. He was able to hear the truth. The world was able to hear the truth.

Bryan helped Walter get the truth out there. No other person had done this for Walter. Only Bryan…

Leaders have the opportunity to do something for others that no one else can. You can help others be heard.

Let your team members know you are there for them. You are there for them in the good times and the bad times.

Being there for your team goes a long way in earning trust. It also gives your team dignity. They know someone is for them.

13. Bryan Stevenson:

I came out of law school with grand ideas in my mind about how to change the world. But Mr. McMillian made me realize we can’t change the world with only ideas in our minds. We need conviction in our hearts. this man taught me how to stay hopeful, because I now know that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Hope allows us to push for word, even when the truth is distorted by the people in power. It allows us to stand when they tell us to sit down, and to speak when they say be quiet.

There is so much power in this quote from Bryan Stevenson. I want to focus on only one for this leadership lesson from Just Mercy.

Leaders are idea people. They see things for how they could be or should be. They want to change the world.

Yet ideas are not enough. Ideas will not change the world.

What will change the world? Conviction in our hearts to do the right thing.

Find the conviction you need to get the ideas you have out into the world. These ideas could be to build your organization or, I hope, something bigger like social justice.

Ideas alone won’t change the world. Conviction and acting on that conviction will.

If you would like to watch Just Mercy, you can find it on Amazon or where ever you stream video.
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