CEOs In Movies: Lessons For Everyday Leaders From Hollywood Blockbusters

CEOs were everywhere in movies and TV in 2023 — and the prevailing attitude toward executives was all over the map.

In today’s media landscape, CEOs are as likely to be heroes as villains, depending on who’s keeping score and what story is being told.

This is a change of pace from previous decades, when CEOs were often the targets of scorn—particularly in the anti-establishment ’70s. But the rise of Steve Jobs and Apple fed into a new myth of CEO-as-saviour. Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of the Silicon Valley innovator burnished the legend, which led to a 2015 feature film with Michael Fassbender as the Apple co-founder.

More recently, CEO myth-making came full-circle with The Dropout, an eight-episode series about the rise and fall of Silicon Valley medical start-up Theranos. Amanda Seyfried portrayed Theranos’ founder, Elizabeth Holmes—a card-carrying, black-turtleneck-wearing member of the Cult of Jobs. Needless to say, the already tarnished Holmes’ brand did not fare well in The Dropout, where her single-minded pursuit of success at the expense of the truth is shown to have serious consequences.

Against that backdrop, 2023 offered a host of new CEOs to scrutinize on TV and in movies. Here’s a look at how three CEOs were portrayed and some lessons that you—as leaders yourselves—can learn from them.

Nike’s Phil Knight in Air

The feature film Air attempted to dramatize Nike’s 1985 endorsement deal with Michael Jordan.

Nike is portrayed as an underdog and Phil Knight as its Zen-practicing CEO. In a story about the film’s underlying business philosophy, Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen writes that a scene showing a conversation between Knight and basketball talent scout Sonny Vaccaro “should be required viewing for any executive in any line of work.”

In the scene, Knight agrees to assign the entire $250,000 budget of Nike’s basketball division to get Jordan. Before they offer the basketball star a shoe deal, Knight has one final question for basketball talent scout Vaccaro: “What’s the name of the sneaker?” Vaccaro answers “Air Jordan.” Knight pauses, then says: “I don’t know. Maybe it’ll grow on me.”

“For a billionaire who was influenced by Buddhism, this could have been Mr. Knight’s mantra,” writes Cohen. “He wasn’t sold initially on the name Nike. He wasn’t a big fan of the swoosh logo, either. He ran with them anyway because he listened to the people around him.

“It’s a formula that can apply to every company: hire employees who are good at what they do and let them just do it.”

It certainly worked for Knight; Air Jordan exceeded the CEO’s expectations of $3 million in sales, and earned $162 million in one year, becoming a steady source of income for the shoe company.

BlackBerry’s Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie in BlackBerry

BlackBerry follows the rise and fall of Canadian company Research in Motion, creators of the BlackBerry. At the film’s outset, RIM is a small startup run by tech geeks in Waterloo, Ontario. It becomes obvious that co-founders Douglas Fregin and Mike Lazaridis don’t know how to run a company, or at least don’t know how to take their company to the next level.

Salvation comes in the form of executive Jim Balsillie. Lazaridis and Balsillie form an uneasy alliance as co-CEOs. In what is perhaps the movie’s most telling scene, RIM faces a hostile takeover from Palm CEO Carl Yankowski. To keep the wolves at bay, Balsillie determines to drive RIM’s stock up—bullying sales reps to sell more and hiring engineers away from other tech companies to fix network problems.

One of the movie’s lessons is that having two people in charge of a company, especially when they’re as different as tech geek Lazaridis and the more ferocious “pirate” Balsillie, isn’t sustainable. In the end, the unwieldy leadership structure prohibited RIM from competing with Apple’s iPhone.

Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton play BlackBerry co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie in BlackBerry.

Melvin Capital’s Gabe Plotkin in Dumb Money

There is little sympathy for the executives in Dumb Money. The film about the 2021 short squeeze on GameStop features hedge fund managers Gabe Plotkin, Steve Cohen, and Kenneth C. Griffin. They are presented as avaricious one-percenters who are foiled at their own game by mom-and-pop investors.

The result of small investors driving up the stock of GameStop was huge losses for Plotkin’s Melvin Capital. Melvin, which heavily shorted GameStop, lost 53 percent of its investments. Even after a cash infusion by Cohen’s Point72 Asset Management and Griffin, Melvin ultimately shut down on May 18, 2022.

The lesson to be learned for leaders is to not underestimate the little people. Plotkin, Cohen, and Griffin thought they were invincible and that small investors were just “dumb money.” But in this case, the dumb money fought back.

If 2023 was any indication, we haven’t seen the last of CEOs in the media. Startup founders and entrepreneurs have become as ubiquitous in American entertainment as cops, doctors, and superheroes.

And, with CEOs like Elon Musk, Sam Altman, Sam Bankman-Fried making headlines this year, there’s no end of material for film and TV studios to draw from.

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