Lessons are best learned when we don’t expect them. When someone proselytizes us or pontificates, our defenses go up. Therefore, the best time to influence someone is when their guard is down. That’s why good ads can have a profound impact — we expect them to be mindless at best, annoying at worst, and most of them are either or both. But some are transformational and enduring.
Perhaps television commercials — not social media campaigns or viral videos — best convey the most powerful lessons in leadership. They are worth showing to aspiring leaders; the ads may even serve as templates for your own leadership messages and media. Here, in descending order, I’ll list numbers 10 through six of the TV ads that best exemplify principles of leadership in my opinion. (In my next column, I’ll share the remaining list.)
10. GoPro, “Space Jump” (2014)
Description: An astronaut/skydiver steps onto the ledge of a capsule that is in Earth’s upper atmosphere, almost in space. A GoPro camera is attached to the person’s helmet. He says, “The whole world is watching. I’m coming home,” steps off, and plummets toward Earth. The figure shrinks and disappears within seconds. “GoPro. Be a Hero” appears on a closing title card.
Leadership Lessons: Vision; innovation; courage. After the commercial depicted the beginning of the 24-mile free fall, millions of people jumped online to watch the rest of the descent — as filmed by GoPro itself. The company distinguished itself as daring, bold and visionary.
9. Uber, “Thank You for Not Riding” (2020)
Description: The spot shows an empty cityscape, then flashes to scenes of people isolating at home during the Coronavirus pandemic. They are connecting via video, playing with children, improvising games, waving to others through windows and so on. The ad ends with the message “Thank you for not riding with Uber.”
Leadership Lessons: Selflessness; responsibility; leading by example. What is more noble than asking people not to use your service, so the world can heal faster?
8. Microsoft, “Be the One” (2020)
Description: In a voiceover, San Francisco 49ers coach Katie Sowers, the first female coach in the Super Bowl, describes how as a child she wanted to be on a “real” football team. Footage shows her in present day coaching 49ers on the field. She talks about overcoming others’ doubts that a woman could lead in a male sport and opening the door for other women.
Leadership Lessons: Diversity and inclusion; developing new leaders. Looking beyond traditional sources of talent benefits individuals, organizations and societies.
7. Nike, “Just Do It” (1988)
Description: A man identified as 80 years old jogs across the Golden Gate Bridge. His voiceover says that he runs 17 miles every morning. Then he says, “People ask me how I keep my teeth from chattering in the wintertime. I leave them in my locker.” A title card appears saying, “Just Do It.”
Leadership Lessons: Vision; values; bias toward action; humor. Leaders don’t look for excuses or obstacles. They look for opportunities and paths. “Just do it” crystallizes this value.
6. Partnership for a Drug-Free America, “Frying Pan” (1987)
Description: Someone holds up an egg and says, “This is your brain.” The person points to a frying pan on a burner and says, “This is drugs.” The cracked egg goes into the pan where it starts to sizzle and cook, and then the person says, “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”
Leadership Lessons: Communication; responsibility; values. The clear, direct delivery packs a wallop and the sponsor emerges as a moral paragon.