Leadership in Les Miserables

Les Miserables

I finally had a chance to watch the 2012 movie Les Miserables last week.

As a leadership researcher and consultant, I was astonished by the richness in leadership insights presented throughout this amazing story.

Leadership Transformation via Crucible

In the beginning of the movie, it portrayed the darkness moment of the main character Valjean where he was released on parole after serving a 19-year sentence. Even though he was free, he was completely lost and helpless.

That is until being offered food and shelter by the merciful Bishop.

Yet even though mercy was shown him, he stole the church’s silverware and subsequently got caught. To Valjean’s surprise, the Bishop spared him and he lied that the silver was as a gift to Valjean to keep him from getting in trouble.

Profoundly touched by the Bishop’s mercy, Valjean was transformed inside out – he vowed to start a new life with mercy and integrity as his cornerstone principles.

What Makes a Leader

Warren Bennis, the guru of leadership, once asked: “What makes a leader?

This is a timeless question with no simple answer. In interviewing more than 40 top leaders, Bennis found one commonality:

All of them were able to name a life-changing experience that had transformed them.

These “crucible period” had become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities. Indeed, Valjean spent 19-years in a crucible – his heart was hardened by the world’s coldness, but was transformed by the noble Bishop’s act of mercy.

Leaders would undoubtedly go through ups and downs. But spending time to reflect, to solidify their convictions, values and mission is paramount to gain a full understanding, a full scope of meaning, and the right contextual fabric of their situations and circumstances.

I often encourage leaders to reflect and retell their life stories, as this is instrumental to leadership transformation.

On Justice, Mercy & Grace

The Tension between Mercy and Legalism in a Leader

Justice: Getting what you deserve 

Mercy: Not getting what you deserve 

Grace: Getting what you don’t deserve Click to Tweet

One of the story themes is the tension between Valjean and Javert. Javert (a police officer) had always been watching Valjean with a cruel eye.

As a legalist, “an eye-for-an-eye” philosophy was Javert’s definition of justice and mission.

Ironically, Valjean freed Javert even given an opportunity to revenge, mirroring what the Bishop did.

On Leadership and Humanity

Indeed, mercy reminds us we are not merely independent individuals, but inter-dependent souls.

Organizations are made up by human beings so cannot coexist by simply upholding laws alone. Even at work, we are not robots but human beings yearning to love and to be loved.

According to an interview by Russell Crowe who acted as Javert, Victor Hugo based the two antagonistic characters (Valjean and Javert) on his one friend, Eugène François Vidocq.

Mercy vs. law is always a struggle for organizational leaders.

Both Valjean and Jarvert received mercy: The former prevailed, then transformed; the latter was puzzled, then perished.

Leaders need to be principle-driven. But without mercy, they are only “slave managers”. As Bishop D. Tutu once said, “Love is straighter than law.” The leader with love is undoubtedly stronger than manager with law (only).

On Integrity and Leadership

Subsequently, Valjean became a person with high social status. When Javert suspected Valjean was a parole broker, a man believed to be Valjean was mistakenly arrested.

Valjean refused to use this scapegoat as an easy way out. He made a tough decision to reveal his true identity because of the integrity vow he made.

He then lost everything he built, except his integrity.

Making a vow is hard, keeping it is even harder, especially when the stake is high. In this post-modern era, people don’t believe the truth, people only want to believe in authentic and trustworthy people.

Making things up and doing good deeds cannot neutralize an unethical decision, despite it satisfies all “justifiable” financial return. It is those have integrity, like Valjean, who can prevail at the end as a true leader.

Keeping an Transformation Icon

When Valjean needed to flee again, the silver candle stand was the first item he took with him. The candle stand was a symbol for his transformation, his vow and his new reborn life.

Keeping such icon was a constant reminder of the core values of him.

I know many leaders (including myself) have kept a poem, a painting, and a slogan to keep him sane in those insane days. We all need something to hang on to keep us going, when the going gets tough.

Happy Endings

At the end of the story, the exhausted and aged Valjean went back to the church he was transformed  to wait for his death, alone. That was his daughter who tracked him down, surrounding him with love at the last moment of his life.

Valjean lived a full life, and he impacted many lives that he encountered. He experienced such hardship and such mercy that transformed him as a true leader. And he, in turns, transformed many others with his integrity and mercy.

And it all started by the Bishop touching his life, and he in turn touched many others.

This is what leadership is all about.


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Andrew Ma
Andrew Ma
is Executive Director of Chorev Consulting

He specialize in Leadership Development, Assessments, Cross Cultural Training 
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Web | Skype: andrewma99

Image Sources: blogs.naplesnews.com


2 responses to “Leadership in Les Miserables

  1. The first assignment for my graduate work in leadership was to read a Shakespearean play and write on the leadership insights I gleaned from it. This confirmed a long-held suspicion for me–leadership lessons are everywhere, we need only to have eyes to look. This article is a great example of that–well done.


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