Leaders with purpose and personal commitment to a goal are hard to stop. The Oscar-winning film 1917 illustrates three key leadership lessons demonstrating how passionate, purpose-driven leaders accomplish their goals – even in the face of extreme adversity.

The gripping movie depicts stories told to director Sam Mendes by his grandfather, a WW1 veteran. It revolves around two British lance corporals, Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay). General Erinmore (Colin Firth) orders the pair to deliver a note by daybreak to another commanding officer. The message tells him to call off a planned attack because it is a German trap. If Blake and Schofield don’t make it in time, 1600 soldiers, including Blake’s older brother, would likely die.

Blake and Schofield have to make a dangerous journey through “No Man’s Land,” a war-ravaged stretch between the Allied and German trenches. They don’t know what they will encounter, but because of their personal passion for accomplishing the goal, they press on anyway.

During periods of unpredictability, effective leadership is more critical than ever. Whether it’s a global pandemic, World War I, or a corporate restructuring, there are critical steps leaders can take to succeed during times of stress and uncertainty.

Empower Employees to Decide

At the beginning of the film, a sergeant selects Blake for the mission. He tells Blake, “Pick a man. Bring your kit.” The person he selects will go with him to meet the General. Blake chooses his friend Schofield. By doing this, the sergeant gives Blake some control over the situation and makes him personally invested in the project.

As they start their journey, Schofield is hesitant and questions the choices Blake makes (such as crossing “No Man’s Land” in daylight). He and Blake have a disagreement, and Blake tells Schofield that he can turn around and go back. Blake gives Schofield an out, but he doesn’t take it. Instead, when Blake asks, “Coming then?” Schofield nods that he wants to continue.

After this decision by Schofield to press on, that point, the men no longer argue. They work together to meet their goal. It’s as though Schofield did not recognize the job as his mission until Blake gave him the option to turn around, and he declined. Once Schofield made an active choice to continue, he never questioned his choice again.

The takeaway: When so much is out of your team’s control, give them things they can control. Allowing team members to make some decisions will provide them ownership and help them feel more invested in the outcome.

Focus on the Goal and Keep Moving Toward It

As soon as Blake knows that his brother’s life depends on him accomplishing the mission, he is determined to get there as quickly as possible. Schofield tries to convince him that they should wait until sundown to avoid being seen by the German soldiers. But Blake understands that they’re entering the unknown. Because they don’t know what they will encounter, they don’t know how long their trip will take. He decides they don’t have a second to waste and will begin immediately.

As the men move forward, they continuously encounter death and destruction. But they don’t let that distract them. They continue to press on to accomplish their goal despite the devastation around them.

The takeaway: During times of uncertainty, it’s easy to get stuck weighing your options. Give yourself and your team a set time for ideation and creative thinking. Choose your course of action, commit to it, and move toward it.  You can course-correct as you go if needed.

Help People Focus on their “Why”

Would Blake have been as passionate about beginning their journey and accomplishing their goal if he wasn’t going to be personally impacted by the outcome? General Erinmore tells the men that 1600 soldiers will die if they don’t succeed. But it’s not until he says that Blake’s brother is among them that Blake realizes that failure is not an option. Saving his brother is Blake’s “Why.” Erinmore selected him because he knew Blake would be more motivated than any other soldier. His personal connection made him passionate about success.

Although Schofield is Blake’s partner in accomplishing their mission, he doesn’t have confidence that they will get there in time. But when Blake dies, Schofield feels the fire grow within him, and he becomes determined to relay the message in time. Blake’s death gave him his “Why.” He did not want his friend’s death to be in vain. Once Schofield finds his “Why,” he becomes unstoppable.

In the final scene of the film, Schofield takes a photograph out of his jacket. It’s a picture of his wife and children with the words “come back to us” written on the back.  At this point in the film, we realize that throughout the entire journey Schofield had another “Why” propelling his survival.

The takeaway: A leader can motivate the team during uncertain times by helping them focus on their purpose. They will be more likely to accomplish their goals when their passion and purpose are clear.


Navigating times of crisis and volatility presents challenges for leaders and organizations. But during times of uncertainty, leaders have a unique opportunity to empower and support their teams as they navigate the unknown. In fact, there are ways to weather these experiences and use the lessons learned to make your team and organization stronger.

When you’re ready, we’re here to help. Contact us to create an immersive, customized leadership experience focused on your organization’s challenges and goals.