Quotes And Leadership Lessons From The Greatest Showman

A Reel Leadership Article

The Greatest Showman tells the story of P.T. Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman). His rise from a poor boy to the world-famous founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus is told in musical form in this entertaining movie.

You see P.T. Barnum as a young boy treated poorly by the upper-class family he served. When Barnum’s father passes away, he takes to the street to survive. From there, he discovers a way to make a name for himself and a living for his family. Then he loses it all…

quotes and leadership lessons from The Greatest Showman with Hugh Jackman

The story of P.T. Barnum is an entertaining trip through history. With a great soundtrack, you’re going to remember the movie. You’re also going to remember the leadership lessons from The Greatest Showman.

Let’s take a look at those leadership lessons you’ll find in The Greatest Showman.


Caution: The Greatest Showman spoilers below

Quotes And Leadership Lessons From The Greatest Showman

1. Great leaders clearly envision their future:

The Greatest Showman opens with Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum singing the circus ring with his band of circus freaks. Slowly, the people begin to fade away and we find the young Barnum looking at himself in a shop window. His reflection places his face over the swanky suit he’ll later be seen in the movie.

The young Barnum had a vision. He was going to be more than a poor street urchin. He was going to entertain.

And do you know what? He did. He went on to entertain the masses.

His clearly envisioned future came to fruition.

Leaders have a responsibility to cast a vision others can clearly see. They lay out the foundation, they build upon it with a story, and they bring their team into the vision.

This vision-casting creates excitement and a future to reach for. Envision your future and shoot for it.

2. P.T. Barnum:

It’s my fault sir.

A young Charity Hallet (destined to be the future Mrs. Barnum) was practicing her tea drinking skills when a young P.T. Barnum makes her laugh. Her father begins to reprimand her for laughing during her training.

Barnum steps up. He realizes he was the one who made Charity laugh and it was his fault. He accepted responsibility for his actions.

His accepting responsibility carried repercussions. Mr. Hallet proceeded to slap Barnum for his actions.

Great leaders know their actions have consequences. For themselves and for others. Because of this, they also know they must accept responsibility for their actions.

When great leaders slip up, they don’t cower and hide. They stand up, say here I am, and this was my fault.

If you’re to become a leader worth following, you’re going to have to accept responsibility for your actions and the actions of those on your team. Then, you’re going to have to accept the consequences.

3. Kindness changes lives:

After P.T. Barnum’s father passes away, he begins a life on the street. To survive, he tried to steal bread from a street merchant. The merchant realizes what Barnum has done and chases him down. The merchant recovers his bread and slaps the young boy.

A disfigured stranger sees what happened to Barnum. They felt pity for the boy and gave him a shiny, red apple. This subtle act of kindness had an influence P.T. Barnum’s life.

Kindness isn’t an often talked about aspect of leadership but kindness is a crucial piece of leadership.

You win loyalty and devotion with kindness. You show people dignity when you shower kindness upon them. And you make the world a better place when you are kind.

Seek ways to show kindness to your team. Be a kinder, gentler leader.

4. Failure is a part of leadership:

P.T. Barnum opened up a museum of oddities. The museum contained the world’s tallest giraffe, giant elephant, and more. Most of these attractions were stuffed animals or wax recreations.

He was excited to open the museum and believed he was going to see success. But he didn’t.

On the first day of the museum, he sold a handful of tickets. Most of those to his wife and two daughters. His venture was looking like a failure.

While the museum failed, he moved onto another venture. One which garnered him more fame.

Most people want to avoid failure like the plague. They believe failure is the sign of defeat.

Leaders know failure doesn’t mean the end. Failure means it’s time to try something new.

When you fail, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move towards the next goal.

5. Great advice can come from those with the least amount of experience:

Barnum’s kids began talking to him about the museum. They mentioned the museum had a lot of dead things. What the museum needed was living things.

Their idea sparked Barnum’s imagination. He envisioned a show with disfigured people performing for an audience.

It’s easy to discard ideas when they come from someone with less experience than you. You may believe their ideas don’t hold weight because they’ve never been where you have been.

This is a horrendous mindset to have. Their ideas may hold MORE weight because their ideas aren’t tainted with experience.

Be willing to listen to people with less experience than you. Evaluate their ideas and see how they might work.

6. Find the right pitch:

When Barnum approached Charles Sherwood Stratton (Sam Humphrey), Charles was concerned people would only come to laugh at him. Barnum’s response was wrong on all levels. Barnum suggested he should be a part of the show because people were laughing at his height anyways.

Do you see how this could go wrong? Charles didn’t want to be laughed at. He wanted respect.

Barnum had to come back with a different pitch. Instead of leading with the laughter, Barnum sold Charles on the idea of riding a horse in the most exquisite uniform the crowds would ever see.

Thus, General Thom Thumb was born.

The way you pitch ideas matters. You can’t throw out ill-conceived ideas and expect people to buy in.

Craft a well-thought-out pitch. Help people see where they’re going to go.

The pitch matters.

7. P.T. Barnum:

They don’t understand but they will.

Barnum’s circus performers were concerned with how the crowds viewed them. Barnum reassured his people that it didn’t matter HOW people saw them in the moment. What would matter is how they WILL see the performers.

Their skills and talents would change the hearts and minds of the crowds. That’s what they needed reassuring of.

Great leaders will support their team emotionally. They’ll help them realize they have what it takes to succeed.

Be a leader who gives positive reinforcement.

8. Even bad press is good press:

A newspaper critic visited Barnum’s circus and was going to leave a scathing review of the circus. Others saw this as damaging. Barnum saw this as an opportunity.

Right next to the bad press, Barnum placed an ad for 50% off of the Barnum Circus.


Barnum saw an opportunity. The bad press would now be a great advertisement for his show.

Do you fear bad press? Why?

Look at what Barnum did. He turned bad press into an opportunity to sell more tickets. How can you take advantage of bad press you may receive?

Are there Google AdWords you could purchase to run alongside the review? Maybe a video sharing the bad press and a rebuttal?

There are so many ways you can turn bad press into good press.

9. P.T. Barnum:

Teach me how to appeal to the highbrows.

P.T. Barnum meets Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) after one of his daughter’s ballet recitals. He knows Carlyle had the skills to help him appeal to the rich crowd.

He made a proposal to Carlyle and asked for his help.

Great leaders see where they’re weak. They know they need to improve, even in their weaknesses. This is where they ask for help.

Seek out mentors or consultants who can help you take your business to the next level. There are people who have gone before you and know the way better than you do. Find these people and learn from them.

10. Great leaders don’t leave their team behind:

Phillip Carlyle landed an appearance with the queen of England. Fearing she may say the circus performers would not be invited, he made it clear Barnum and Carlyle would not appear before the queen without the rest of their team.

You may be tempted to leave your team behind when you’re invited to special events. Don’t do this.

Instead, bring your people along with you. Show the world you appreciate and respect the work they’re doing.

11. Jenny Lind:

Why me?

During their tour of England, Barnum became aware of the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). She was a famous opera singer in England and he wanted to bring her to the states.

But why? Why would someone want to do that? She had to know so she asked.

You may be surprised when someone asks you to step up into a leadership role. You may think you don’t have what it takes to be a leader.

There are people out there who are watching you. They see your skills and abilities and they appreciate it.

Stop wondering “WHY ME?” and instead say “WHAT NEXT?

12. Don’t shut your team out:

Barnum began to let his ego grow. When meeting with Jenny Lind, he wouldn’t let the rest of his team greet her. He’d become ashamed of them.

This hurt his team. The family he’d built.

When you shut your people out of important meetings and introductions, they hurt. They begin to feel betrayed.

Be careful of how you treat your team members. They’re watching and they care.

13. Phillip Carlyle:

You’re attention has been divided.

Carlyle began to see a shift in Barnum. Barnum had become divided. He was splitting time between the Circus and Lind.

This put a strain on relationships and the business. No longer was the greatest showman leading the show. He was being pulled in two directions.

Spreading yourself too thin is dangerous. While it sounds great to be able to take on new opportunities, these new opportunities also pull you away from what’s already made you successful.

Keep a close eye on the projects and tasks you’re taking on. Make sure you’re not dividing yourself more than you can handle.

14. Charity Barnum:

When will it ever be enough for you?

Charity Barnum (Michelle Williams) saw P.T. falling into the trap of desiring more and more and more. She was happy with the life they were living. They had a great family with two kids and a successful circus.

His desire for MORE began to hurt their family and he couldn’t see it.

Leaders are a special breed. They desire to build organizations and take those organizations to the next level. This desire can blind them to the fact they’re hurting their families.

You have to have your spider-sense tuned to your family and their needs. Proceed with caution if you see yourself continuously desiring more.

15. Your family will notice your absence:

Barnum began to descend down a slippery slope. His desire for more led him to leave his family and tour the country with Jenny Lind. This took him away from his family.

His children and wife began to notice his absence in their life. They looked for him in the crowd during their ballet recitals only to see an empty seat next to their mother. Dinner had an empty seat. Charity longed to dance with her husband again and began to imagine the life they once had.

Being successful requires hard work. You may think it requires long hours as well.

Sometimes your career may require long hours away from your family. Still, you have to be aware of what you’re doing to them. They will notice you’re gone.

16. Leaders can fall into immoral situations:

The tour with Jenny Lind took Barnum and Lind on the road together… Alone…

All of this time together led them to grow close. So close there was quite a bit of sexual tension.

Lind began to fall for Barnum. Barnum began to have feelings for Lind.

Thankfully, Barnum realized where his time with Lind was leading him and he pulled away. He told her he was leaving the tour.

This devastated Lind and she kissed him in front of the last concert she performed. This led to rumors and Barnum’s wife to leave him.

Leaders have to be cautious of the situations they place themselves in. Billy Graham realized this and created what is commonly referred to as the “Billy Graham Rule.”

The Billy Graham Rule came from Graham’s refusal to travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than his wife. This helped him avoid the appearance of an affair and also helped prevent any improper behavior, on his part or the woman he had to meet with.

Be cautious of your relationships with those of the opposite sex. They can easily slip into dangerous territory.

17. James Gordon Bennett:

I never liked your show but the people did.

James Gordon Bennett (Phillip Sparks) was a theater critic who poorly reviewed Barnum’s circus. He believed the show was low-brow. He also realized something else: People loved Barnum’s circus.

As a leader, you have to come to accept there will be people who like you and people who dislike you. There’s not much you can do to change their mind so you have to live with it.

18. Great leaders celebrate humanity:

One of the things Barnum did right was to bring people together. His circus performers were of different genders, deformities, and skill sets. He saw them for what they were: skilled performers who had value.

He celebrated their differences by putting them on display.

What are you doing to celebrate the humanity of those on your team? Are you encouraging their hobbies and pursuits? How can you let them know you appreciate them for how they’re different?

19. Leaders create a family:

Not only did Barnum celebrate the humanity and differences of his performers, he also created a family unit.

Many of the performers were rejected. By society… Worse, by their families.

Instead of rejecting them, Barnum brought them into a cohesive unit where they felt loved and cared for. They became a family.

You and your team will spend countless hours together. If you work with them the standard 40-hour workweek, you will spend almost 2,100 hours together. That’s a lot of time.

This time creates a surrogate family unit. Be aware of this and help cultivate a healthy work family.

20. Tragedy can spark new ideas:

Sadly, Barnum’s original theater for the circus burned in a tragic fire. The fire was started after protesters of Barnum’s circus started a fight. One of the protesters saw a kerosene lamp and tossed it into flammable materials. The lamp burst into flames and engulfed the building.

Carlyle almost lost his life in the blaze. Barnum did too as he ran into the fire to save Carlyle. Thankfully, both men made it out alive.

The building didn’t fare so well. It was toast. Burned to the ground.

How would the circus continue? Buildings were expensive and stationary. There had to be a better way.

Barnum then had an idea. They could use tents. The tents would be cheap and portable.

Have you experienced tragedy in your business or organization? Did you see it as a roadblock or a stepping stone?

Whenever you face tragedy, look for ways you can recover. There may be better ways that arise from the tragedy that you couldn’t see before.

21. Pass the leadership baton:

During Barnum’s final show with the circus, he passed his hat to Carlyle during the show. Carlyle then took his place.

Barnum explained he was done with the circus. He was ready to spend time with his family. He wanted to watch them grow up.

Still, the show must go on. This is why his hat was passed to Carlyle. Carlyle would take the lead and direct the circus from here on out.

Leaders have to be prepared to step out of the light. There will come a time when a new leader must step up.

You have to be willing to pass the leadership baton.

22. P.T. Barnum:

For years, I chased their cheers.

When I heard Barnum utter these words, I cringed in my seat. In The Greatest Showman, you saw how Barnum chased fame and fortune… The approval of those he viewed as above him.

Sometimes we, as leaders, chase the applause and cheers of others. Others who really don’t matter.

Be very cautious of the reasons you’re leading. Your reasons will lead you to the right or the wrong path.

Lead for the right reasons.

Want more leadership lessons from the movies? Check out the Reel Leadership archives.

Question: Have you seen The Greatest Showman? If you have, share a leadership lesson from The Greatest Showman you saw in the movie. If you haven’t, share your favorite leadership lesson from The Greatest Showman that I shared. I want to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

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