Braveheart HR: Attributes of a Transformative HR Leader

Human resources is at a crossroad. Is the profession ready to have a profound impact on both the performance of our companies and the quality of our employees’ lives? Or does human resources continue as it has been for decades as a reactive, administrative cost-center? If human resources is to break free from this corporate "police officer" role of the past, it will require a new model for HR leadership.

As the war for talent intensifies, human resources practitioners will increasingly feel under attack. Each day, practicing human resources can feel like fighting a battle where there are insurmountable odds against success. We needs leaders who can overcome great odds to secure victory. What HR needs is William Wallace.

In the 1995 film Braveheart, the world was introduced by the iconic character William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson. For those of you who haven’t seen the film in a while, here’s a refresher, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Gibson portrays a legendary Scot, William Wallace, who gained recognition when he came to the forefront of the First War of Scottish Independence by opposing Edward I of England.

William Wallace was the stereotypical movie hero. He led an underdog group of Scotsmen in a war that they almost certainly could not win. But, due to his fearless leadership and actions, these men fought and prevailed. Before you get the wrong idea, I’m not suggesting that you run out to buy some blue and white face paint and a plaid kilt. But I do believe Gibson’s character exhibits some leadership characteristics that are central to success of an HR leader today and in the future.


"You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure that they have it." —William Wallace, Braveheart

Passion is defined as a powerful or compelling emotion or feeling. In Braveheart, William Wallace was obviously passionate. He displayed a wide range of powerful emotions from revenge for the murder of his wife to desire for the freedom of his native Scotland from the oppressive English. His passion was both obvious and palpable throughout the story; and it was this passion that compelled others to follow him. Hopefully we can agree that the work human resources needs to do is hard. It requires people who are passionate about human resources. Like Wallace, HR leaders must possess and show passion for their work. This means reading, writing, blogging and tweeting relentlessly about human resources, leadership, business and all things human behavior. This knowledge must be shared with others within your organization to infect them with these ideas. Passion means engaging actively in the greater HR community to network with and exchange ideas with your peers (i.e. local HR groups, informal discussion groups, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, etc.) and to advance the field. When we hire, we must seek out and hire others who eat, sleep and breathe this work. Without passion for this battle, HR leaders will be hard pressed to convince others to follow them into the fight.


"And if you would just lead them to freedom, they'd follow you. And so would I." —William Wallace, Braveheart

For William Wallace, his passion became his purpose. He was willing to die to free Scotland. He was very clear about this purpose and it was this purpose that united him with his followers in their battles. Even in the face of death, Wallace was driven by his purpose.

As an HR leader, it’s imperative that we answer some critically important questions:

  • What is your purpose (i.e., Why are you here as an HR leader)?
  • What is HR’s purpose in your organization?

In my opinion, too many human resources executives and managers seem to be acting with the purpose of not rocking the boat. For too long, HR’s purpose has been to enforce the policies of the organizations and faithfully execute the directives of the business leaders we support. These purposes are not only out of date, but they are actually doing harm to our organizations. Now more than ever, our companies require a strong people strategy led by a strong HR team. As an HR leader, you must be able to succinctly define and articulate an answer to the first question because those who follow you need to trust your motives and commitment. Secondly, you need to lead your team through a process of defining your purpose as a human resources organization. Once you define it, share it with your company and ensure that every action and word from human resources aligns to support and advance this purpose.


"Now tell me, what does that mean to be noble? Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don't follow titles, they follow courage." —William Wallace, Braveheart

If William Wallace in Braveheart is defined by one thing, it is certainly his courage. In a famous scene in the movie, the Scots were growing uncertain about a clash they were about to have with the English. It appears that they may be contemplating a retreat when Wallace appears on the scene, face painted and ready for battle. He gives a fiery speech and then leads the men into battle. A key ingredient missing in many HR organizations is courage. After all, how much courage does it take to enforce the rules and hide behind protocol? Courage isn’t really needed until the battle to transform an organization is waged. To change cultures is difficult. To slaughter sacred cows is dangerous. Yet, this is where the truly transformative work of HR is done. If we as HR leaders are fearful, then we can never be effective. For human resources to evolve and transform as a discipline, executives and leaders will need to be challenged, policies will need to be changed, and many "business-as-usual" practices need to be eradicated. This will require us to push beyond our fear and to be courageous.

Human resources is in the midst of a revolution. This revolution will be lead by those who, like William Wallace, lead with passion, purpose and courage. Instead of fighting with arrows, axes and swords, we will do battle with intelligence, innovation and guts. And we must persist and we must prevail.

"In the year of our Lord, 1314, patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like Scotsmen. And won their freedom." —William Wallace, Braveheart