Movie Mondays: Avoid Citizen Kane’s Leadership Mistakes

By katie simpson on September 22, 2014

Citizen Kane is a classic film that has captured audiences, long after its release in 1941. It tells the rise and fall of a fictional newspaper tycoon, Charles Foster Kane. While set at the end of the 19th century, Kane could easily be a 21st charismatic leader of a company. In his fall, Kane shows blunders we can still learn from.

Your personal brand matters

Kane begins to fall from grace as he loses the election for governor. While initially ahead, he loses after the papers find out about his affair with a woman, Susan, whom he later marries. But this scandal costs him the election and any hopes for a career in politics. 

So close…but his lack of authenticity costs him the whole election.

Beyond politics, personal brands are becoming more important than ever. Social media, blogs, businesses more than ever need a human touch, a human face to connect with their customers, partners. The human feel can differentiate and attract people on a more emotional and compelling level.

However, you can have Kane flop when you aren’t authentic. Here are a few ways to ensure you have an authentic and effective brand:

  • It reflected your true personality
  • Adhere to a consistent moral and behavioral code
  • Specialize in a specific area. You have a specific talent or unique skill 
  • Differentiate yourself. Whether it’s in what you do or how you do it, being able to say why you are different is crucial for people to understand why they should pick you
  • Do good stuff: People like doing business with people they like. You can have a controversial brand, but then you’ll alienate people. Whether it’s by being approachable, giving away services, or being nice to those that reach out to you, creating goodwill can lead to not only great relationships, but also a lot more business

It’s not about you

In the beginning, Kane takes a hands on approach with only one business in his portfolio: a struggling newspaper. His guardian and trustee questions him about this. Why a newspaper when he had so many other successful businesses.

Kane replies that he wants to provide honest reporting to the working people. While there was a personal element of revenge, he was focused on those beyond him. 

As time goes on, Kane loses this ability to work for others. He becomes obsessed instead with proving them wrong or trying to buy affection. With his second wife Susan, for example, before they were married their affair was categorized as Kane with a “singer”. Once married, he forces her to sing to give her legitimacy. Only after she attempts suicide does he allow her to stop singing.


Great leaders have to continue to put their ego aside again and again. They need to engage and empathize with their employees. They need to listen to those on the front lines to get an accurate picture of their consumers and the reality of their business. 

When leaders are empathetic, they engage their employees, harnessing their strengths. They recognize change on the ground, and innovate more. By putting aside the self, leaders are more productive, and more successful. 

We can’t do it alone

Initially, Kane brought people together to help achieve his dream for a successful paper. He had his friend Jedediah Leland come on as a dramatic critic. Not only was Jedediah an employee but a confidant, someone that wasn’t as in awe of the Kane name. 

But when Jedediah gives Susan a negative review, Kane fires him. As time goes on, Kane becomes more and more isolated, eventually alone in his palace, Xanadu. 

Kane alone in Xanadu. Source

While we often think about success as one individual. But in reality, it’s often in complimentary duos that people truly find success: Ben and Jerry, Buffet and Munger, even the Wright brothers. Great duos may not be the best friends but they bring different strengths to the partnership. 

Buffett for instance, is the value hunter. Munger brings an understanding of psychology, history and technology to contextualize their investments. Working together, they have created a company that’s worth over $36 billion dollars. 

Alone, Kane let his ego run wild and he had no one reflecting reality and holding him in check. When leaders have an equal with complimentary strengths, they can do more together than they could apart. 

Citizen Kane is a tragic story about a man unable to connect. His faults not only leave him with a smaller business, but all alone. In the 21st century, what makes us great is our ability to relate to others and work with them. Only through authenticity, empathy, and connection will businesses and people thrive. 

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