Leadership Lessons from The Last Dragon

One of the greatest movies of all time (or at least of the time between March 21st and March 23, 1985), The Last Dragon, has some insightful tips for leaders from the 1980’s to the present.

About The Last Dragon

Wikipedia summarizes the movie well:

“The Last Dragon is a 1985 martial arts musical film… (that) was a critical disappointment but a financial success, The Last Dragon is now considered a cult classic.”

In The Last Dragon, Leroy Green (aka “Bruce Leroy”), is a martial artist seeking to attain the final level of his training. His teacher explains that when he achieves that highest level, his hands will be immersed in a glow. The greatest of all – The Last Dragon – will achieve a full body glow. While seeking to attain this glow, Leroy Green must defend his NYC family and the woman he desires (singer and TV dance show hostess, Laura Charles) against the evil threat of Eddie Arkadian and Kung Fu antagonist, “Sho’nuff”.

Although the critics dismissed it, the film won many fans. To add to those fans, I propose a different perspective: leadership lessons from the cult classic.

1. Great Leaders are Often Misunderstood

Leroy Green honorably pursues the highest level of mastery in his art. This means he dresses and speaks different than most people his age. As a result, he’s perceived as odd by his little brother, Richie. Similarly, great leaders are dedicated to their role of service to their organizations. Therefore, these leaders often don’t get caught up in the latest fashion trends or popularity contests. Like Leroy Green, great leaders are often misunderstood.

Little Brother Richie Misunderstands Leroy Green in the Last Dragon

Richie: I’m tellin’ you, pop. The boy’s an awkward. Stupid old clothes, won’t mess with no babes… People talk, you know.
Mama Green: Richard, leave your brother alone.
Richie: I can’t help it if he’s weird. You’re weird, man! Really weird!

2. What You Seek is Not Written on the Floor

As Leroy’s master explains he can no longer teach him, Leroy grovels on the floor, begging for further instruction. The master clarifies that it is because Leroy has learned all he can teach. It is time for him to move on. Like Leroy, great leaders must understand it is not about looking down, but looking up. Grovelling will only hold you back and limit the capacity of your tribe.

Get Up Leroy - What You Seek is Not on the Floor - Last Dragon

Leroy’s Master: Come Leroy, get up, what you seek is not written on the floor.

3. Successful Leadership Often Means Going Alone

Leroy has been sheltered by his teacher. Knowing he always has someone to look to for guidance.  Whatever the situation or circumstance, he has his safety net. Suddenly, all that is gone and he feels lost, confused and perhaps even frightened. There comes a time like this for all great leaders. Mentors will always be there. Still, there is a time when every great leader must leave the safety net and bare the risks on their own shoulders.

Leroy: Master, perhaps with more time to train… Master I need more time –
Leroy’s Master: I am no longer your master! … Go now, my son, on your journey… go… go…

4. Stand Up for Yourself

Angela Virraco is an air-headed, pop-star wannabe. She believes her thug boyfriend, Eddie Arkadian can give her this dream. However, as the movie progresses, she sees him for the abusive man he really is. Although she understands it may cost her the dream she desires, she stands up to him and leaves. Whatever your dream, there may come a point when you have to give it up for what is right. Stand up for yourself and those you serve. Success will follow.

Also From Kew Gardens - Angela Virraco - Last Dragon

Eddie Arkadian: Where are you gonna go, Angie? Without me, you’re nothing! Without that outfit, you’re just another no-talent dental hygiene school drop-out from Kew Gardens getting by on her tits!
Angela Virraco: And in the end, Eddie, you know what? You’re nothing but a misguided midget asshole with dreams of ruling the world. Yeah, also from Kew Gardens. And also getting by on my tits.

5. Vanity Precedes Failure

The chief antagonist of the film is Sho’nuff. The man’s anger and aggression is only outdone by his bad taste in fashion. What’s worse, his ego is almost as big as his hair. He believes he is the master – The Last Dragon. So he will stop at nothing to beat down his humble counterpart, Leroy Green. In leadership, the same is true. Those who think too highly of themselves are destined to fail. The vain usually have self-confidence issues they mask and seek to serve only their own ambition. Vanity should never be confused for confidence.

Shonuff makes his entrance at the movie theater in The Last Dragon

Sho’nuff: Am I the meanest?
Sho’nuff ‘s Goons: Sho’nuff!
Sho’nuff: Am I the prettiest?
Sho’nuff ‘s Goons: Sho’nuff!
Sho’nuff: Am I the baddest mofo low down around this town?
Sho’nuff ‘s Goons: Sho’nuff!
Sho’nuff: Well who am I?
Sho’nuff ‘s Goons: Sho’nuff!
Sho’nuff: Who am I?
Sho’nuff ‘s Goons: Sho’nuff!
Sho’nuff: I can’t hear you…
Sho’nuff ‘s Goons: Sho’nuff!

6. Good Guys Win in the End

Spoiler Alert! In the climatic fight scene between Leroy Green and Sho’nuff, Leroy is losing badly. It seems all is lost, when Leroy has an epiphany – he is the master. He is the Last Dragon – that was what his master was trying to tell him. Leroy believes in himself and kicks Sho’nuff’s butt. You may also think all hope is lost in your leadership efforts. In fact, it may be the darkest of times. But that’s why you need to hold out a bit longer. It is darkest just before the dawn. Good does triumph evil. Great leaders triumph over toxic leaders.

Shonuff asks Whos the master and Leroy says I am - Last Dragon

Sho’nuff: Alright, Leroy, who is the one and only master?
Leroy Green: I am.

7. Good Guys DO Get the (Good) Girls

Finally, for a bit of fun – the good guys really do get the (good) girls and vice versa. Our hero Leroy, after vanquishing Sho’nuff and Eddie Arkadian, returns to seek the affection of Laura Charles. Sure enough, she loves him and runs into his arms as the credits scroll. For leaders, the concern here is not the love interest – necessarily – but the attainment of your objectives and those of your tribe.

Laura Charles Runs Into Leroy's Arms - Last Dragon

Laura Charles: You sure look like a master to me.

It may be a guilty pleasure, but I loved this movie and still enjoy watching it during the occasional reunion with the break-dancing buddies of my youth. If you’re a child of the 80’s and have not yet seen “The Last Dragon”, get it – now. You won’t be sorry. After all, now you know there are some great leadership lessons as well.

 Question: What other classic 80’s films had great leadership lessons?

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Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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