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“How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing else will do?”

So asks South African President Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) in the film, “Invictus,” a movie that takes on the daunting task of portraying one of the most epic events in sports history, combined with a momentous time in world politics and the human drama … and actually does the story justice.

Set against the first years of Mandela’s administration as the new president of post-apartheid South Africa, “Invictus” is more than just a story of defeating racism and more than just a movie version of the 1995 World Cup of Rugby, in which the host nation of South Africa shocked the world by overcoming an international ban to win the event in stunning fashion.

“Invictus” is a demonstration of the unconquerable power of forgiveness, a road map for overcoming racial division and a significant contribution to the movie lexicon that merits consideration when the Academy starts handing out golden statuettes.

And yet, “Invictus” offers something even more: it teaches a living object lesson on how to inspire others, how to build a team, how to achieve the dream – in short, how to be a great leader.

The film is filled with moments and quotes on leadership, any of which could be a training session at your next corporate meeting or ministry seminar, and several of which ought to be projected onto the walls of our nation’s Capitol over and over until our government leaders’ thick skulls melt enough to let the message permeate in.

For example, at one of the film’s most crucial moments, Mandela is faced with convincing a whole council of black leaders thirsting for revenge after years of racist policies to choose forgiveness over victory, forbearance over conquest.

He actually has the gall to think he can convince the council to overturn its unanimous vote against the white Afrikaners’ rugby team. It’s a hopeless, uphill battle against decades of cultural pressure. It’s political stupidity, a battle that can’t be won – kind of like, oh, I don’t know, illegalizing abortion or actually – gasp! – cutting government spending.

“You’re risking your political capital,” protests Mandela’s top adviser, “your future as a leader.”

To which Mandela replies, “The day I’m afraid to do that is the day I’m no longer fit to lead.”

Hello? Washington? Chew on that one for a while.

The heart of the film’s message on leadership, however, is the way Mandela brings out the best in everyone around him. He inspires them, first and foremost, by example.

Early in the film, we get a glimpse of this philosophy when he gathers his staff on his first day as president. Mandela senses the tension between white and black staffers who are uncertain how to work together.

“The past is the past,” he tells them, “but if we can do our best with a good heart, we will be a shining example to the world.”

In the rest of the film, Mandela serves as a shining example of how to turn others into shining examples.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the mentoring role he takes with South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar (played by Matt Damon, and not nearly as masterfully as Freeman plays Mandela).

When Mandela asks Pienaar his “philosophy on leadership,” the team captain responds, “by example.”

That’s the answer Mandela wanted to hear.

By the end of the film, the audience sees Pienaar take from Mandela the baton of leadership by example, particularly in a key moment, when his rugby team faces a brutal opponent, the 6-foot-5-inch, 254-pound Jonah Lomu, a hall-of-fame player who in previous matches had broken records by bowling over any obstacle, human or otherwise, in his way.

With his teammates despairing on how to tackle Lomu, Pienaar inspires his crew by boldly proclaiming, “I will break my arm, my leg, my freaking neck … but I will not let that guy go.”

I’ve never played a second of rugby in my life, but at that moment in the film, I was itching for a shot at tackling Lomu myself. Inspiration by example – it’s that powerful.

Content advisory:

  • “Invictus” contains a handful of profanities, but they are artfully placed and not distracting from the dialogue.
  • The film’s sexuality consists of bare-chested men in the locker room, short rugby shorts and a scene of kissing where a married couple falls to the floor off-screen, implying but not showing sex.
  • The film does launch some racial epithets to set the tension, but this is lighter than one might expect in a racially charged film.
  • A brief glimpse of gore is seen during a race riot, and the rugby players do show occasional scrapes, bumps and bruises.
  • Alcohol use is fairly rampant throughout, from beer in the locker room to people gathering at bars to watch the rugby matches. To those from social circles that abstain from alcohol, it could be somewhat distracting.
  • Religious themes are mixed in “Invictus.” God is mentioned in the film reverently in a few places, and the audience is allowed into the team prayer following the championship match, a surprising choice by the moviemaker. There is very little occult or, surprisingly, native African religion present. The poem “Invictus,” which plays a small but significant role in the film, does strike of humanist thought with the phrase “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” For a film named after the poem, however, “Invictus” doesn’t dwell much on “Invictus.”

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