Leadership Values from Mulan
WARNING THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
With the release of Disney’s latest live-action adaptation of Mulan, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to discuss some of its leadership themes. This post will not cover any cultural controversy that surrounds either of Disney’s adaptations. It will also not discuss or express views on the recent comments from the new movie’s lead actress, Liu Yifei. There is already a plethora of conversations about these topics from voices far more informed and relevant than mine. Instead, this post will focus on both films’ leadership elements, their parallels to the seven Army Values, and their application(s).
When Disney released their animated version of Mulan in June of 1998 I was 14 and about two years into my heavy East Asian/anime obsession phase. I was hooked from the initial trailer, and fell in love with the movie while watching it in the theater. Mulan’s animated version holds a special place in my heart as it was a sleepover-staple for me and my friends. Watching it now as an adult, I’m transported back to my youth and reminded of many fond memories.
Mulan‘s origins date back to a Chinese poem, ‘The Ballad of Mulan,” believed to be composed during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 AD) over 1500 years ago. A translated version can be found here. I have no background in either of the Chinese languages (Mandarin/Cantonese), let alone ancient Chinese, so I have no reference for the translation’s accuracy.
Loyal – Brave – True
The Chinese characters of Loyal, Brave, True, are inscribed on Mulan’s father’s sword in the live-action version. The virtues are central to the film’s overall plot and are threaded throughout the story.
Loyal – In the both film, citizens are expected to be Loyal to the Emperor. The corresponding Army value is Loyalty. Rather than loyalty to a single political leader, the Army’s definition of Loyalty steams from our government’s foundational document, the U.S. Constitution. Loyalty here also extends having loyalty to the Army as a whole, an individual’s unit, and to other soldiers. There are several scenes in live-action Mulan which illustrate loyalty to more than just the Emperor. Honghui, Mulan’s main rival at training camp, states that he would do everything to protect his fellow soldiers and urges Mulan to do the same. In a later scene, on the eve of battle, Mulan gives an emotional speech to her comrades, stating she will protect them and that they will all fight for one another.
Leaders should display a level of loyalty to their organizations. However, it is prudent to refrain from blind loyalty. Justifying unethical decisions on the grounds of being loyal to an individual or organization breeds toxic work environments and enables destructive and potentially illegal behavior.
Brave – One of my favorite lines for the live-action movie is, “There is no courage, without fear.” This line is said to Mulan by her father after she declares that she wishes she could be as brave as him. Courage and fear have a dependent relationship, one cannot exist without the other, and neither can exist in isolation. There are many times where Mulan displays bravery in the movie but most notably, when she makes the decision to leave home and when she battles the enemy. In both films, at significant risk to personal safety, Mulan charges into an avalanche to save a fellow soldier’s life.
The Army Value best associated with this concept is Personal Courage – “Face fear, danger, and adversity (physical and moral).” I would also argue that one often faces a degree of psychological or emotional fear, which is not exclusive to military service but experienced in any workplace. It takes personal courage to willing place yourself in harm’s way, but it also takes personal courage to speak up for yourself or others, confront your peers or superiors, or question orders when they appear unethical.
While Mulan demonstrates the actions of bravery throughout the film, the most inspiring was her decision to reveal her identity, which leads us to the next pillar of virtue – True.
True – Mulan’s internal struggle to be faithful to this virtue is vital to the film’s plot. In the live-action version, before Mulan’s battalion heads into battle, the soldiers swear the Oath of the Warrior, reaffirming their dedication to upholding the three pillars of virtue: Loyal, Brave, True. During this scene Mulan is unable to vocally affirm her fidelity to the final virtue – True. The most obvious reason for this is that she has been living a lie through her deception of her superiors and comrades. She is not being true, to them or herself, and therefore is unable to finish her oath. As the battalion prepares to leave, Mulan unsuccessfully tries to confess to her superiors. Mulan’s internal-grappling over whether to reveal her true identity is probably the most significant deviation of the live-action film from it’s animated counterpart. Mulan’s inability to be honest with both herself and others leads to her downfall as she narrowly escapes death at the hands of the witch Xian Lang. Xian Lang warns Mulan that she will never reach her full potential while living a lie. It is in this moment that Mulan is reborn, shedding most of her armor as she returns to battle, not as Hua Jun (her male persona), but as Mulan.
In the live-action movie, Mulan herself chooses to reveal her identity. In the animated version, a doctor informs her superiors of her true nature after receiving medical care. Allowing Mulan in the live-action version to have full agency over the public reveal of herself adds further value to the importance of being true.
The lesson of this virtue is that leaders cannot reach their full potential if they are not honest with themselves or others, to include both superiors and subordinates. On the surface, it may seem easy to implement, however just like Mulan, it takes self-awareness and courage.
The Army Value that algins most closely with ‘True’ is Integrity – “Doing what’s right legally and morally.” It is not enough for a leader to simply say they have integrity; it must be evident by their actions. Leaders who operate under the philosophy, “Do as I say, not as I do,” not only send a mixed message to those under them, but also ultimately lack integrity. A leader without integrity is a liability and danger to those above, below, and adjacent to their position. These actions reinforce the acceptance of unethical behavior and, if left unchecked, can breed an entirely new generation of compromised leaders..
Leading with integrity requires individuals to be self-aware. “Self-awareness is fundamental to understanding one’s abilities. Leaders should know their strengths and weaknesses: what they do or do not know, what they are or are not skilled at, and what is in their span of control” (ADP 6-22 2019). Leaders who attempt to hide their weaknesses, or over-inflate their abilities, are not acting with integrity and often end up placing others at risk. Leaders in this category are a common fixture in organizations both within the government and private sector. Those around them can often see through such embellishments and are usually well aware of their flaws or shortcomings. This can lead to both superiors and subordinates making efforts to circumvent or minimize the roles and responsibilities held by such lackluster leaders. While these leaders may be mentored, the actual challenge is at the individual level, requiring an honest and thorough self-reflection, while also developing a sense of self-awareness.
There is an important moment of self-reflection in the animated Mulan. Once she is cast out of the army, she reflects on her actions and motivations thus far. While she defended her deception as the only way to protect her father (duty to family), she considers that perhaps her actions also gave her the opportunity to prove to both herself and her family that she could finally do something right. Although this is a very brief moment in the film, it’s worth noting if only because we are able to see Mulan question herself and her motives. We see her struggle as she realizes that perhaps her motivations were not entirely as she initially thought. Many leaders are good at identifying their faults, but few truly take the time to accept and make efforts to improve them.
Duty & Honor
Unlike the live-action movie and its three virtues, the animated film emphasized the concepts of duty and honor. Early in the movie, Mulan tells her father that he shouldn’t have to go and fight in another war. He replies with the following dialogue:
Fa Zhou: “It is an honor to protect my country and my family.”
Mulan: “So you’ll die for honor?”
Fa Zhou: “I will die doing what’s right.”
Duty and Honor are two of the Army Values. Duty – “Fulfill your obligations”, and Honor – “Live up to the Army Values.” In the above Mulan example, Fa Zhou’s statements reflect the concepts of duty, honor, and selfless service. The Army defines Selfless Service as putting the welfare of the Nation, the Army, and your subordinates before your own. At this stage of the film, Mulan doesn’t fully understand her father’s words or the drive behind his determination. In the ending scene, after all of her experiences, Mulan has come full circle. She is selfless in her desire to protect her father. She learns what it means to act out of a sense of duty when she returns to the Army to warn them of the Hun’s survival. Finally, upon returning home, she presents her gifts to her father, stating they are gifts from the Emperor to honor the Fa family.
If you’re familiar will the Army Values and keeping track, you may have noticed the only Army Value not covered yet is Respect – “Treat other as you want to be treated”. While a critical leadership quality, I couldn’t derive any great examples from either film. However, in the live-action version, respect or the lack thereof is central to the antagonist character of Xian Lang. More than anything she wants to be respected as a woman and as a warrior. Social rejection drove her to a dark, destructive place. Although an extreme example, it illustrates not only how respect for others is important, but also the destructive impact a lack of respect can have on an individual.
There are two sides to respect (giving and receiving) summarized in the below APD 6-22 doctrine excepts:
Army professionals treat all people with respect—They lead by example and do what is ethical to prevent abusive treatment of others.
Leaders who respect those with whom they work will likely garner respect in return.
Leaders who fail to express genuine respect for their subordinates will also fail to see it reciprocated in turn. Their organizations will suffer, not only in terms of operational effectiveness but also in terms of morale, which is likely to be low or nonexistent. The absence of respect between individuals creates the foundation for toxic work environments, which is why leaders have a responsibility to recognize and continually address disrespectful behavior whenever it is present.
Wrapping Up –
Although this post is on the longer side, I’ve enjoyed extracting leadership lessons from both films, discussing their parallels to the Army Values, as well as providing some helpful takeaways for anyone who finds themselves in a leadership position. At the end of the day, the virtues from Mulan and the Army Values are ultimately just words. It is not enough to simply say they are important, instead leaders must consistently embrace them while making conscious efforts to ensure their own conduct is reflective of them. Likewise, values are not something that can simply be taught in a class or presentation, instead they must be an ever-present aspect of an organization’s culture and exhibited in a way which makes others want to embody them.
Disclaimer – This article does not represent an official position of the U.S. Army or the U.S. Government.
Caro, N. (Director). (2020). Mulan [Motion picture]. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Cook, B., & Bancroft, T. (Directors). (1998). Mulan [Motion picture]. Walt Disney studios home entertainment.
U.S. Department of the Army. (2019). ARMY LEADERSHIP AND THE PROFESSION (ADP 6-22). Retrieved From: https://armypubs.army.mil/