Colonel Nicholson's success as a leader in 'The Bridge on the River Kwai'

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Leadership and Decision-making

Leadership entails guiding and inspiring others to achieve a specific goal. Leadership is a collection of abilities that enables a leader to successfully fulfill his duty as a leader and achieve the defined objectives within the allowed resource constraints. Different setups involve different forms of leadership. The scope and breadth of leadership abilities necessary are determined by the kind of decisions that must be made by a leader (Owen, 2017).

Structured and Unstructured Decisions

Structured decisions always are clearly defined with a definite set of options to solve a given dilemma. On the other hand, unstructured decisions are undefined and the leader ought to make a clear analysis of the available options to make a decision. The formal leadership utilizes in most cases the structured decision making. The informal sector relies on the leadership of the given organization to make decisions as rules and regulations guiding decision making are not always defined. In the military, the chain of command and the available rules and regulations guide the decisions of various commanders. In the film; ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, leadership effectiveness is brought into scrutiny as the military colonel Nicholson. Nicholson makes various decisions and his leadership style and the type of his followers influence the success of his mission in World War II.

Leadership Skills for Success

Communication, motivation, creativity, delegating, positivity, commitment and flexibility form part of the essential leadership skills for a successful leader. Colonel Nicholson in the film is depicted as a commander who had a share of success and failure in equal measure. Leading soldiers at the height of World War II required that a commander exercise utmost competence to bring forth success in terms of conquest. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ film brings forth ways in which a leader can fail or succeed. Colonel Nicholson’s leadership was marked by human resource management challenges that involved the motivation of the army and laborers in various projects. Despite the formal and structured nature of the army, the war had compromised the chain of command and thus, commanders at each level had to make unstructured decisions to make sure that they win the war. The building of the bridge as outlined in the film was a mega project that had a great influence on the direction of the war (Boulle, 2011).

Successful Resource Management

Colonel Nicholson was successful in securing the necessary resources to ensure that the project was done. He provided the timetables and the blueprints for the building of the bridge. At the face of manpower shortage, Colonel Nicholson was not short of options and went to hospitals to ensure that he got the requisite labor force. The Kwai Bridge was a strategic structure for both the British and the Japanese in World War II. Supply of men, weapons and food relied on the rail network. The goal of building the bridge was the primary goal of Colonel Nicholson and he succeeded in building it. Nicholson was a proactive leader and the need to establish a legacy for him was not stopped by the shortages in human labor (Lynch, 2015). Nicholson provided a solution to the manpower shortage by using the sick and the prisoners of war.

Failures in Leadership

Nicholson as a leader failed to adhere to the agenda that took the British army to the war. The Kwai Bridge that colonel Nicholson struggled so much to build would be a weakness for the British and her Allies in World War II. Nicholson failed to motivate the people working on the bridge. As a leader, he ought to have provided both the intrinsic and the extrinsic motivational factors for his people (SCHEDLITZKI, 2017). Nicholson was also a poor listener. As a leader, Nicholson would have listened to concerns including the remarks made by Clipton in the film. The greatest failure of Colonel Nicholson was his lack of foresight. War is an activity that calls for utmost analysis to explore the repercussions of each move made. Colonel Nicholson was hasty in building the bridge that would later bring demise upon the British. Nicholson’s goal of winning the war was displaced by his quest for personal legacy. Nicholson focused on the building of the bridge that he forgot to employ foresight and implications of the bridge (Wronka-Pośpiech, 2016).

Followership Styles

Robert E. Kelley’s in his ‘Model of Followership Styles’, explains the different types of followers in organizations and leadership systems. Alienated followers express critical thinking and independence. In many instances, alienated followers are negative, cynical and troublesome with a lack of vision. Conformist followers implement the leader’s directions without question at the expense of their own views. Conformist followers result from lack of leader-follower exchange. Pragmatic followers aim at survival in the organization by doing just exactly what is needed. Passive followers have no sense of responsibility, lack initiative and depend on the leader for directions. The exemplary followers believe in the give-and-take system and ensure that they dedicate their energy to benefit from the organization (Thomas, 2017). Colonel Nicholson building followers in the film were passive followers. The followers had no sense of responsibility or initiative towards the mission of the British military. The Nicholson followers were prisoners of war and depended on Nicholson for directions. The soldiers in the war were conformist followers. The nature of the military requires that the soldiers follow the orders of the commander without question.


The men under Nicholson failed to advise their leader on the possible implications of the bridge. Also, the men under Nicholson were passive and conformist followers and followed the directions blindly. The followers ought to have questioned the directions of Nicholson and advised appropriately. If Nicholson had proved adamant, the channeling of the concerns to higher authorities should have been done.


Boulle, P. (2011). The Bridge On The River Kwai. London: Vintage Digital, 2011

Owen, J. (2017). The leadership skills handbook: 90 essential skills you need to be a leader. London, United Kingdom; New York, NY: Kogan page Limited 2017

Lynch, R. L. (2015). Strategic management. Harlow, England: Pearson, 2015.

SCHEDLITZKI, D. O. R. I. S. E. D. W. A. R. D. S. G. A. R. E. T. H. (2017). STUDYING LEADERSHIP: Traditional and critical approaches. S.l.: SAGE PUBLICATIONS. 2017

Thomas, T. A., Gentzler, K., & Salvatorelli, R. (December 07, 2016). What Is Toxic Followership?. Journal of Leadership Studies, 10, 3, 62-65.

Wronka-Pośpiech, M. (January 01, 2016). The relationship between leadership style and sucess in social enterprises. Przedsiębiorstwo We Współczesnej Gospodarce : Teoria I Praktyka, 2016, 7-21.

April 06, 2023

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