Quotes and Leadership Lessons from Death Wish

A Reel Leadership Article

I’ve often wondered what I would do if I was ever put into a situation like Bryan Mills from Taken or, now, Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) in the new Death Wish movie. Would I want to extract revenge for the pain brought upon me or the deaths I had to witness?

As a man, these questions often flood my mind. And I love watching movies explore this thought process. Death Wish tells the story of Paul Kersey, a doctor whose job it was was to save lives. Only to have his wife brutally murdered and his daughter shot and left in a coma.

What would you do? That’s the question Death Wish gets you thinking about.

And, if you’re intentional, it’ll also get you to think about leadership.

1. Leadership will be hectic:

Death Wish opens with a hectic scene. A police officer is driving his mortally wounded partner to the hospital. Weaving in and out of traffic, he’s trying to save his friend’s life.

When he gets to the hospital, the hospital is crowded. Doctors and nurses are surrounding the wounded police officer, trying to attend to his wounds.

There was a lot of motion and commotion happening. The scene was hectic.

That’s a lot like leadership. There’s always something coming at leaders and you have to decide what to tackle and what to pass on.

When leadership seems to be too hectic, remember this is what you signed up for. You signed up to be the one to make wise decisions and guide people through the chaos.

2. Dr. Paul Kersey:

It had nothing to do with you.

Regardless of how fast the police officer drove, he was unable to get his partner to the hospital in time. His partner died as they were pushing him on a stretcher to the operating room.

The officer arrived at the hospital in 6 minutes. Six minutes from a vibrant life to flatline.

The sad thing is, the surviving officer felt bad. He believed it was his fault that his police officer partner succumbed to his wounds.

Thoughts flooded his mind:

I wasn’t fast enough.

What more could I have done?

How could I have said his life?

Why didn’t I do more?

Guilt, anguish, self-doubt…

You’re not going to be able to help, or save, everyone. You’re going to lose team members and customers and vendors.

This is a part of leadership. You can’t do everything. You can only do what you can do.

3. You have to help others:

Shortly after the officer died, another patient was brought to the hospital. This patient was the suspect in the shooting.

Dr. Kersey left the police officer and began helping to save the life of the criminal who just killed a police officer. It was his job to help people and he didn’t get to choose who to help.

Being a leader puts you in front of a lot of different people. You’re not going to believe the same, act the same, or think the same way as those you serve.

Does this mean you don’t serve those who are different than you? No, you still have to help others. Even if they’re different.

Show them a better way. Teach them the right way to act or think. But help them none the less.

4. Paul Kersey:

I’m happy.

Lucy Kersey:

You’re going to have to tell that to your face.

Paul and his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) were having a discussion when Paul tells her that he is happy. Lucy sees something else displayed on his face. His face did not show he was happy.

This reminded me of the Michael Hyatt shared a story about his face not showing his happiness. Someone in his organization asked him if he was angry at someone. No, everything is fine, Michael replied. His co-worker then told him to let his face know it because he looked ticked.

Our physical expressions tell a lot more than our verbal expressions. Be aware of the facial and body language you’re giving off.

You may be expressing negative feelings that aren’t there like Paul and Michael did.

5. Remember important details about people:

Frank Kersey (Vincent D’Onofrio), Paul’s brother, asked Lucy about the status of her Ph.D. He remembered she was working hard to advance her career and took an interest in what was happening in her continuing education.

He could have continued the conversation at a surface level but remembered something important to Lucy. She was going for a big goal. He wanted to know how it was going. And he asked.

Do you remember important details about the people you’re leading? Do you even take an interest in what’s happening in your people’s lives?

By taking an interest in what’s going on in the lives of the people you lead, you’re showing them you’re a leader who cares. Do your best to remember important events like birthdays, anniversaries, or victories. Or maybe you need to take note of major events like an upcoming wedding, graduation, or pursuit of a degree.

You can do this by writing them down on a notepad. You could also use an online calendar to keep track of these events.

Make your people feel important by remembering the important details of their lives.

6. Make the effort to show you care:

For Paul’s birthday, the plan was to go to a nice restaurant. The plan was scuttled when Paul was called to his Chicago hospital to cover for a sick doctor.

His wife wasn’t going to let this unplanned cancellation stop her from showing Paul she cared. She and their daughter Jordan Kersey (Camila Morrone) went to the store and bought the ingredients to make a 3 Milks Cake for Paul’s birthday celebration.

Jordan wondered why they would go through the trouble. Afterall, they could go to the store and buy a premade cake.

Lucy believed it showed they loved Paul. They would be putting in time and effort to show they cared. And they were right. It was an effort of love.

Going the distance and showing your team you care means you have to put in an effort. Sometimes it’s a lot of effort. But effort shows you care.

Make the effort to show you care. Remember important dates like the previous leadership lesson from Death Wish talked about. Find and reward great behavior. Look for things to celebrate.

Be a leader who makes the effort.

7. Know your defining moment:

Paul’s birthday quickly turned tragic. Three thugs broke into his home and shot his wife and daughter. They were then brought to the hospital Paul was working.

He heard an announcement stating two females the same age as his wife and daughter had arrived. And he KNEW the patients were his wife and daughter.

This was a defining moment for Paul. His life changed in the blink of an eye.

Over the next days, weeks, and months he began to feel the implications of this defining moment. He discovered he needed to take matters into his own hands and bring justice to his loved ones (not that I endorse this).

Every leader has a defining moment. A moment where they know what they were created to do.

Do you remember your defining moment? What made you want to become a leader?

Make your defining moment firm in your mind. Keep a remember so you never forgot.

Your defining moment is your WHY and your why will drive you.

8. Lucy’s Father:

We have to trust His plan.

During Lucy’s funeral, her father began sharing about the loss of his wife. He knew he believed he had to trust in God’s plan to get him through the pain and tragedy.

With the new tragedy, he wasn’t sure if he could still trust God’s plan. He didn’t know how to make it through everything.

I’m going to touch on the part of Lucy’s eulogy where her father says he needed to trust in God’s plan because I believe every leader would be wise to do so.

God has a plan for each of you. Whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you see His plan, there is a plan for you.

Seek it out. Pray, ask for guidance, get help. God’s plan will be greater than anything you can imagine, even through tragedy.

9. Dr. Jill Klavens (Wendy Crewson):

This is a process. It’s going to take time.

Dr. Klavens was Paul’s psychologist. She gave a wise piece of advice.

Healing takes time. In fact, any process takes time. You have to be patient and work through the details to heal or finish.

You will have to be patient as a leader. The things you and your team are going to accomplish will take time.

Don’t be in a rush. Work through problems as they arise. Find solutions. But take time.

10. Leaders can feel overwhelmed:

Detective Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) was the lead investigator into the murder of Lucy and the shooting of Jordan. Paul tried to stay in touch with him to get updates but Raines began to fall behind and not return the phone calls.

Paul takes matters into his own hands. He goes to the Chicago Police Department and pays Raines a visit. After walking into Raines’ office, Paul sees a wall of open and closed cases.

The open cases vastly outnumbered the closed cases. Looking at the wall was overwhelming. So much crime and so few resolutions.

Leadership is much like the wall in Detective Rainey’s office. Open projects, plans for the future, ideas.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed in leadership. You have so much to do and so little time to actually get things done.

Be aware you can easily get overwhelmed as you lead. This doesn’t mean you quit. This means you continue to do what you can.

11. Doing the right thing can hurt:

In one scene in Death Wish, Paul sees a group of thugs attacking another person. Paul speaks up. When he does, the thugs turn their attention from the person they’re beating to Paul.

Paul gets a beat down. He’s kicked and punched and trampled on. All for trying to do the right thing.

You might be feeling that way as a leader. You’ve done the right thing but all you got was grief or frustration. The right thing brought you misery.

And I get it. This happens. Yet you can’t let this stop you from leading.

You’re going to find there are bad days and there are good days. The good days will make the bad ones all worth it.

12. Learn where you can:

After his beat down, Paul began watching online videos about weapons training. He listened to the video instructors and emulated their actions, eventually becoming pretty proficient with a gun.

Paul didn’t go to a class to learn about firearms. He went to an online course.

You don’t have to go to college or seminar to learn about leadership. There are learning resources available all around you.

Seek out great blogs to learn about leadership. Find a mentor to take you under their wing. Watch inspiring leadership videos online.

You can learn about leadership in many different places.

13. Great leaders speak up:

Paul was walking down the street when he saw a couple getting carjacked. He’d had enough and wasn’t going to stand for it.

He shouted to the attackers. Asked them what they thought they were doing.

Paul knew he couldn’t stay silent. He had to say something about the wrongs being committed.

Great leaders know they have to confront bad behavior and speak up. They don’t stay silent.

Be a leader who speaks up when they see something inappropriate or that needs to be changed. It’s leaders who speak up that make a difference.

14. Leaders are being watched:

During the confrontation of the carjacker, Paul opened fire on the criminals. He killed the carjackers and left the scene.

Unbeknownst to Paul, he’d been recorded by a woman in an apartment across the street. Someone was watching him.

As a leader, people are going to be watching you. Whether that’s from the stage or in your day to day life, people want to know you’re who you say you are.

They’ll examine your actions off the stage as much as on the stage. Live as blameless life as you can.

15. People will disagree on whether or not you’re a good leader:

Various radio hosts chimed in on Paul’s alter ego, The Grim Reaper. Some radio hosts called him a hero. Others called him a menace. A criminal.

These radio hosts couldn’t agree on what Paul was. They all saw him through their own lens.

Whether or not you’re viewed as a good or great leader will depend on the lens of the people judging you. Some will see you as a great leader. Others will see you as a mediocre leader. Still others will see you as a bad leader.

You can’t please everyone. So do your best.

16. Learn to relate to those you lead:

Paul had to treat a young boy named Tyler (Isaiah Gero-Marsman) who suffered a gunshot wound to his leg by a man who called himself the Ice Cream Man. While putting in stitches, Paul asked Tyler if he was a LeBron James fan (he’d noticed he was reading a Cleveland Cavaliers magazine). Paul admitted to being a Michael Jordan more than a LeBron fan.

Yet Paul made an effort to connect and relate to his patient. He knew Tyler would react better if he had common ground.

Be like Paul here. Find ways to relate to those you lead.

Creating these connections, these relationships will build a stronger bond in the office and help make your job as a leader easier.

17. Leaders can unintentionally encourage the wrong behavior:

During one of Paul’s visits to his therapist, Dr. Klavens mentioned Paul looked like he was doing much better. Paul said he felt like he was.

Dr. Klavens then encouraged him to keep it up. It’s making you better.

Little did she know what Paul was doing. She encouraged him to continue killing people.

I’ve found myself in a similar position as Dr. Klavens. I’d written something on this blog and someone took it as confirmation of something wrong. My words encouraged them to do something not right.

You’re going to miss the mark as a leader. Someone will take what you said in the wrong way or to mean to do something unethical.

Or you’re going to unintentionally encourage them to do something wrong.

Know your words hold weight. People will listen to what you say and act on those words. Make sure they’re encouraging the right thing.

18. Leaders have to act outside of the system at times:

Paul’s way of dealing with the criminal scum of Chicago was outside of the legal system. He took matters into his own hands and began to off criminals.

While this wasn’t the right thing to do, he saw it as working to clean up the streets.

Sometimes you have to go outside of the system in your organization. This could mean buying flowers for a grieving co-worker or allowing a co-worker to take a paid day off even though they have no more vacation days left.

19. Paul Kersey:

I hope it was worth it.

Throughout Death Wish, Paul tracked down the criminals responsible for his wife’s death and daughter’s coma. One of those criminals was a man name Trebol (Roberto Ozores). When Paul confronted Trebol, he told Trebol he hoped it was worth it all.

Trebol’s crimes caught up with him. And he paid for his crimes with his life. Was it worth it?

Know your actions will have a consequence. They may ripple through multiple families or organizations.

Think of Paul’s quote in Death Wish when making decisions. Will this be worth it?

20. Success can be accidental:

Fish (Jack Kesy), another criminal, attacked Paul. He had Paul on the ground and was almost assured success when an accident happened.

A bowling ball was knocked loose from its holder. The ball then rolled down a shelf, fell off the shelf, and knocked Fish in the head, knocking him out and causing him to shoot himself in the head.

Paul’s success wasn’t from great planning or many meetings. His success was accidental.

You may fall into a lucky success and think it was because of your skills. Know your success won’t always be because of what you’ve done.

Sometimes leaders get lucky and they succeed because of the luck.

21. Detective Kevin Raines:

Stick to saving lives. You’re good at it.

Jordan, Paul’s daughter, eventually recovered from her injuries. As they were leaving the hospital, Paul and Jordan shared an elevator ride with Knox (Beau Knapp) who was the ultimate evildoer in Death Wish.

Paul realized who he was but held off doing anything. Afterward, he went to the gun store and purchased a couple of weapons. These came in handy for when Knox attacked Jordan and Paul at their home.

Paul held off the attack and killed the intruders, including Knox.

Raines later told Paul to stick to saving lives as a doctor. You’re really good at it.

Leaders need to find what they’re good at. And they need to work at it.

Do you know what you’re good at? If not, seek out the counsel of those you work with. They see your talents better than you do. Listen to them and begin working in those strength areas.

If you already know what you’re good at, what are you waiting for? Work in those strength areas and watch your leadership success explode.