9 Leadership Lessons From The Intern

“Everything I learned I learned from the
movies.” 
Audrey Hepburn

It fascinates me how leadership lessons are everywhere.

In fact we find them where we least expect them.

I wonder if authors, script writers, directors, or actors are purposeful in their intent to teach a leadership lesson.

Or, is the lesson unintentional? Just serendipitous that the lesson exists at all?

Kind of like the prize in a Cracker Jack box.

I suppose in the end, it doesn’t matter. The lessons are there. We just have to pay attention and pick up on them.

For me, movies are a great source of leadership and life lessons in general. But that’s just how I go about watching them. For sure, I want to be entertained by movies. But I also want to take any opportunity to learn.

My wife and I are huge movie buffs. We don’t go to the theater much. We have a modest home theater at home where we love to watch movies. Some weeks we will see 4 or 5 movies. We’re not fanatics but do love our movies.

One evening we decided to watch The Intern, with De Niro and Hathaway. We are De Niro fans and we will watch just about any movie he is in.

I don’t think this one will win any awards, but it was an enjoyable movie all the same. I was fascinated by the number of leadership lessons the movie had to offer.

Let me set up the plot, and then I’ll share the lessons with you. Just in case, I will avoid being a spoiler.

Ann Hathaway plays the role of a young CEO who has recently created a start-up on-line clothing company. De Niro joins the company as a 70-year-old intern, and ends up being assigned to assist the very reluctant young CEO. OK, that’s all you get. No spoiling here!

So, with that brief introduction, I share with you the 9 Leadership Lessons from The Intern.

Lesson 1 — Walk the Talk

Set an example, because your followers are watching you. In one scene, Hathaway shows up at the warehouse and shows her employees how the merchandise should be boxed and packaged for shipment, to create a superior customer experience.

She doesn’t write a memo, or make a phone call, or send a text. She shows up in person and shows them what she wants.

In another scene, De Niro comes in early to clean up a perpetually messy area where the employees have been piling up all kinds of items no longer needed. No one asked him to do this. He sees the mess and takes ownership. He leads by example.

Lesson 2 — Be Accessible

Hathaway has no office. She sits at a shared community desk out on the floor with other employees. Even though busy, she is always visible, and will talk to anyone who stops her.

De Niro is also always accessible, not just to the young CEO, but to any and everyone at the company. He even makes himself accessible to the CEO’s husband, to share his thoughts and experiences on relationships.

Lesson 3 — Avoid the Trappings of Power

Here is a lesson that Hathaway seemingly violates. She uses a driver to get around the city, running from meeting to meeting. But she sits in the back seat, on the phone conducting business, as well as reviewing paperwork, designs, and other documents (the car is not a limo, by the way).

She also flies first class to San Francisco to interview a potential CEO candidate. But, she rides a bike to get around the converted factory that is her company and in general, lives a simple, but hectic life.

Lesson 4 — Don’t Underestimate People

Everyone has something to offer. Everyone. Hathaway at first underestimates De Niro and undervalues what he might be able to contribute.

And she also underestimates her assistant (who has a degree from the University of Pennsylvania). But she quickly corrects this with De Niro’s help. By contrast, De Niro underestimates no one.

He is astute at observing, taking it all in, and really getting to know people.

Lesson 5 — Mostly, Keep Your Mouth Shut and Listen

De Niro is a listener. He focus on what people are saying, and what they are meaning to say, even when the words don’t always match their meaning. This is a gift. Empathic listening. He demonstrates mastery at this.

Lesson 6 — Take Input. Don’t Settle for Outcomes You Feel Strongly Against

Throughout the movie, Hathaway’s second in command asks her to interview and hire a CEO, at the request of her investors. She reluctantly agrees, but finds shortcomings in all of the candidates, except for one, whom she decides to hire.

De Niro tells her to stay with her convictions and follow her instinct. She withdraws her offer and sticks to her guns. She listened, she considered, made a decision and stuck to her guns. After all, she is the one running the company.

Lesson 7 — Be Accountable, Be Humble, and Maintain Your Integrity

Throughout the film, Hathaway demonstrates a high degree of accountability and integrity related to decisions and the way she conducts business. De Niro walks this talk as well. He demonstrates extreme humility even though he is a seasoned and experienced executive, and is obviously significantly over qualified to be an intern.

Even when he is transferred away from Hathaway to another department, at her request, and is sent to get coffee at Starbucks by his new boss, he remains humble and helpful. He does an outstanding job at getting coffee!

Lesson 8 — Walk In Other’s Shoes Frequently

Hathaway is adept at stepping into the customer’s shoes. She does this frequently, throughout the movie, touching the customer, interacting with them at the point of service. There is a scene in the film where she is sitting in the customer service area, taking a call, and handling a customer complaint.

In another scene, she receives a package of her company’s clothing that she orders on-line, as if she was a customer, so she can experience what the customer experiences. She is not happy with the way the items are packaged and shows up at the warehouse to fix this (see Lesson 1).

Lesson 9 — Treat Everyone With Respect and Don’t Hesitate to Help

This is De Niro, over and over. He treats all of the employees with the utmost respect, takes it upon himself to help a coworker when he is left without a place to live, and offers a helping hand to Hathaway’s assistant. He helps everyone, from Hathaway down.


What treasure troves of life and leadership lessons there are in this world!

These lessons are everywhere, even in sappy films!

All we have is to do, is a tiny little set of things. Open our eyes, our ears, our minds, and learn from them.

I hope you enjoyed this post on Leadership lessons. I am keenly interested in LISTENING to you. Leave your feedback and comments.

Originally published at fiallo.com on April 17, 2016.