Leadership Lessons from Robin Williams©

Robin Williams certainly had a diverse career. When he leapt onto the scene as Mork on Mork and Mindy, he was part of my primetime. I was a big fan of Mork and Mindy–I loved Robin Williams and Pam Dawber–and then of Williams’ guest appearances on Happy Days, which was another part of my television diet. In short, I grew up as a young adult with Robin Williams, and I only saw him as a creative and comedic genius.

Admittedly, I wondered about some of his movie choices in recent years. RV in particular stands out as one of those movies where all I could say was “Robin, what were you thinking?” In fact, I remember a discussion a number of years ago where we were talking about some of Robin Williams’ lesser movie credits, when we realized that he had made some incredible movies. We came up with a list of ten fabulous and meaningful movies that starred Robin Williams.

  1. Dead Poets Society
  2. Awakenings
  3. Good Will Hunting
  4. Jack
  5. Good Morning, Vietnam
  6. Patch Adams
  7. Mrs. Doubtfire
  8. Jumanji
  9. Hook
  10. The Fisher King

The funny thing is that, as we talked about Robin Williams, we realized that while he is generally known as a comedic and improvisational genius, he had brought characters to life that had left an impression with all of us. He may have been just an actor playing roles, but he brought messages into our hearts and minds that inspired us and reminded us of good ways of living our lives. Certainly, this is precisely what leaders do.

I want to share with you just a few leadership (and life) lessons that Robin Williams gave us through his many roles.

  • Leaders are able to see beyond the chaos and uncertainty of the moment to envision a future that is extraordinary.

“Please, don’t worry so much. Because in the end, none of us have very long on this Earth. Life is fleeting. And if you’re ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer skies, when the stars are strung across the velvety night, and a shooting star streaks through the blackness turning night into day. Make a wish. Think of me. Make your life spectacular. I know I did.” –Robin Williams as Jack Powell in Jack (1996)

  • Leaders pay more attention to the good things (and people’s strengths) than to the bad things. Leaders also are able to see the opportunities that lie within the mistakes and the setbacks, seeing every setback as an opportunity to learn and grow.

“You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.” –Robin Williams as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting (1997)

  • Leadership requires us to seize the day, seize the moment and take action to create the extraordinary. Extraordinary people do not create the extraordinary–ordinary, committed and actionized people create the extraordinary, both in business and in life.

“If you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – Carpe – hear it? – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.” –-Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989)

  • Leaders understand that their greatest investment is in people and that they must invest in people as much or more than in any other part of their business. Leaders also understand that they must show their team members that they care about them with appreciation, support and mentoring.

“You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.” –Robin Williams as Hunter Patch Adams Patch Adams (1998)

  • Leaders see the potential in their people and nurture and empower them do their best, be their best and live their best lives. This is the foundation of building engaged and powerful teams.

“The human spirit is more powerful than any drug–and THAT is what needs to be nourished: with work, play, friendship, family. THESE are the things that matter.” –Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings (1990)

  • Great leaders have the gift of discernment. Anyone can develop ideas and a long list of potential opportunities, but leaders are able to discern between the opportunities and ideas and to determine which ones to pursue. They also know  when to go big and when to take small steps.

 “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.” –Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989)

  • Leadership starts on the inside and moves outside into action. Great team members believe in themselves, and one key leadership role is to believe in people so that they can begin to believe in themselves.

“Some people can’t believe in themselves until someone else believes in them first.” ‑‑Robin Williams as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting (1997)

  • Managers take care of business and people, but leaders create businesses, opportunities, positive changes and futures. Each of you is a leader in your own life and, with courage and passion, you can write your own verse and music.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering–these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life! … of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” –Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989)

The question each of you must ask yourself is this: Will you write your own music or will you settle for playing someone else’s tune? Your answer to this question will determine the impact of your leadership, both personally and professionally.

Robin Williams most certainly left his mark in his industry, but also with us through the messages he shared and the characters he portrayed. Perhaps his most famous role was as Mrs. Doubtfire, which showcased his comedic genius and left us with his closing message on his television show, responding to a little girl’s letter about her separated parents:

“But if there’s love, dear … those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you, poppet, you’re going to be all right … bye-bye.” –Robin Williams as Euphegenia Doubtfire in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

What a fitting message to leave you with from Robin Williams. Thank you, Robin Williams, for the gifts you gave us over the years, as well as the messages you left ringing in our ears, our hearts and our souls.

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