Leadership Lessons from Les Mis

I hope everyone had a wonderful and relaxing holiday season, and wish a prosperous 2013 for all.  I gave myself the gift of distance for the past couple weeks – distance from work and social media…down time.  Very nice.

Another gift was seeing Les Mis – twice!  Being a fan of the stage, I was skeptical about the casting in the movie, but it was perfect. Yet neither the stage nor the movie tells the full story of Monsieur Madeleine – le nom de Jean ValJean while in Montreuil-sur-mer where he is the town’s Mayor and the master of vast workshops that employed the townspeople of the village.  I found a leadership lesson in the pages of Victor Hugo’s description of what happened after M. Madeleine confessed to being ValJean and disappeared.

Hugo writes,

“After his fall, what happened at Montreuil-sur-mer was the usual self-interested divvying up of what is left when great men fall…The vast workshops of Monsieur Madeleine were shut down; the buildings fell into ruin, the workers scattered….From that day forth, everything was done on a small scale instead of a large scale – for the lucre, instead of for the common good…the bonds knitted by Monsieur Madeleine became tangled and broke…everything fell apart.” (p 303)

In leadership theory we espouse the competencies of building vision and building relationships….both of which Hugo attributes to M. Madeleine.  ValJean/Madeleine was a visionary – he saw the opportunities in a long-dormant local industry, rebuilt the industry and then some, and was appointed Mayor of the town.

But it is the building of relationships that allows the vision to take flight.  In this context, building relationships has nothing to do with friendship, and everything to do with keeping the vision alive through constant communication and contact, removing obstacles or issues that cloud the vision, and inspiring the benefits of the common good achieved by the vision…..providing the glue that held the people together.

In Madeleine’s case, the common good was jobs and economic prosperity.  When he left, the vision left with him because there was no more glue – no more intervening, no more inspiration, and no more astute leadership.

In today’s world of business and leadership, leaders must continue to provide the glue, and the complexities of the world make this more and more challenging.   Organizations downsize, creating “working managers” – so the position of “leader” is less clear.  Organizations promote “the best and brightest” in the work, but perhaps not in leadership skill.  Building relationships is exponentially more difficult, as special interests at all levels of the organization come on strong.

The lesson from Les Mis, I think, is the critical importance of leaders being clear on their roles, being developed in leadership skills to face today’s complexity, and being held accountable as leaders so that the vision can stand the test of time.  Perhaps I am being naive, but it seems to me that there is nothing in organizations today that is more important.


Hugo, V., (2009). Les Miserables (J. Rose, Trans). New York: Random House.

8 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons from Les Mis

  1. Hi Carol, and Happy New Year!! Fabulous post — Leadership Lost! Les Miz is a favorite if mine too, and I agree on the lessons the play imparts. My question: Is it reasonable to think that Commerce could accept a learning from The Arts? I think there is much to learn from the vast accomplishments of the Arts world, but I have little confidence that the money and power brokers who rule today’s world of Commerce can slow down to consider its worth. But… I’d love to be wrong about that!

  2. Interesting question, Rosemary. There is so much focus today in education on STEM, and the arts seem to be diminishing and even disappearing. I think you are right – and in many ways it is the continued struggle of the practice of OD – slow down enough to figure out the REAL problem, then set about fixing it. History has some great lessons to teach us, as do those literary philosophers who have studied human nature. Could Commerce accept learning from the Arts? In my estimation, that would mean that people trump finance and operations – some leaders see that. Many don’t and continue to try to fix things without consideration of the people.

    Happy New Year to you too!

  3. Great post, Carol. I love the lessons learned from Les Mis. (I saw it as well – fabulous.) I’ve seen this happen very intimately in an organization for which I used to work. One of the key leaders left, and the organization found out in a very painful way that this leader in fact was the glue. I think part of leadership’s responsibility is to ‘get others sticky’, so that when a powerful leader like Valjean leaves the organization doesn’t fall apart. If a leader is trapped in a position of either staying – and somehow not being integrity with his or her values (like Valjean) – or going to follow those values knowing that the organization will fall, then I don’t think the leader has done his or her job.

  4. I agree completely, and the annals of corporate America are littered with good work invested only to find out that “we’re going in another direction” because leadership changed. You’re right that the glue can’t be solely from one person, but has to be the effective interlocking of the systems and programs that make up and align to the culture of the organization. The continued viability of GE is a testament to Welch’s foresight in building continuity….but I see so many people reading his bio, and so few people really seeing what it is he did differently.

  5. Mercedes, you took the words right out of my mouth. Though I love the character Jean ValJean/M. Madeleine, there was an element missing in his leadership and that was building the capabilities of those around him. I call it the Leadership of Legacy. There is no legacy if we take it all with us when we leave. But if we focus on the growth of those around us, we can truly make a lasting impact.

  6. Mercedes and Peggy – absolutely agree with the necessity of building a sustainable future through developing others. Today’s infrastructure of talent management is designed to do just that, but unless the leaders sees this as a responsibility, it may get lost. I keep coming back to clearly defining the role of the leader, and then eliminating other work that prohibits the real work of leadership –

    In the Marine Corps, they teach young lieutenants that they are replaceable and much of their role is sustainability and development of others. What works there (most of the time) is that they teach it early, they reenforce it through performance reports, and the senior leaders model it. That helps ensure that talent development is not serendipitous or left to the will of the individual, but is systemically designed.

    In talent management systems I’ve seen in civilian worlds, they miss opportunities to teach it early, and model it effectively.

  7. Happy New Year! Having read this post and the comments, it occurs to me that most of what I see in business literature about leadership is on “how to be a leader”. There is research on successful leaders detailing what they did to be successful and what their competencies are. I don’t see as much written on “the true work of a leader”. Or, maybe I just haven’t run across it. It is a fine distinction, but one worth pondering.

  8. Interesting point, Kitty. Leadership models, leadership competencies….all focus on what it takes to be a good leader, but I agree that I haven’t seen much on what the leader’s job is. It seems like in the 1980s it was more clear than it is today – with the flattening of organizations and the shift to knowledge work, it doesn’t seem so clear what a leader’s work priorities are. Happy New Year to you too.

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