Lessons from “The Greatest Showman”


About a month ago, our ADDO team was on a company retreat, and in the midst of planning and socializing, there was a vigorous debate between a couple of our team members about a very important topic—the movie The Greatest Showman.

One passionate team member argued that it was the greatest movie of last year, maybe the best one ever, while the other argued that it might be the cheesiest movie ever made.

The debate sparked my curiosity, so my wife and I decided to see the movie a couple weeks ago. Now, in this post, I won’t try to settle their argument. I think they’re both right. Musicals are inherently cheesy and entertaining, and this one is no different. So rather than discuss the movie’s content, historical accuracy, or casting choices, I think there are three lessons that everyone can learn from it.

1. Entertainment that engages– P.T. Barnum assembles a group of misfits for his show, and it’s interesting that people from all walks of life come out to see it. His entertainers are not formally trained, and Barnum is certainly no expert in any genre of art. But he knows how to attract an audience and is anchoring his show on entertainment.

Walt Disney famously said, “I would rather entertain and hope that people learn something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” While the statement from Disney and Barnum’s show are both extreme, we can learn from this principle—if you don’t capture people’s attention, you’ll never have the opportunity to share with them. When it comes to our ideas, our products, our services, or our lessons, we must be engaging on the front end to earn the opportunity to share, equip, or sell on the back end.

2. The public vs. the critics– In The Greatest Showman, there’s friction between P.T. Barnum and a critic of his work. In one scene, the critic writes a scathing piece about Barnum’s show, calling it a “circus”. Instead of being discouraged by this designation, Barnum decides to own it. He changes his show’s name, and advertises the critic’s hit piece all over town.

Walt Disney’s reaction to criticism was similar to Barnum’s. He once said, “We’re not trying to entertain the critics. I’ll take my chances with the public.” It’s a good reminder that if you try something different, there will be people that criticize you. When the criticism is constructive, we should heed it, but we should never be distracted from our work by the loud criticism of a small minority.

Remember, if you have critics, you’re doing something that’s worth remarking about.

3. Progress over comfort In a pivotal scene, Barnum’s character, played by Hugh Jackman, tries to convince a potential business partner to join him. This character, played by Zac Efron, comes from a well-to-do family and would have to give up stability and status to join him. Barnum tells him that, “Comfort is the enemy of progress.” And he’s exactly right. The greatest inventions, companies, and people that have pushed the world forward were born from a place of discomfort.

None of us like being uncomfortable, but it’s often in seasons of discomfort that the greatest progress is made—in our personal development, in the products we make, and in the way we serve customers.

Regardless of your feelings toward P.T. Barnum as a person or The Greatest Showman as a movie, I hope you’ll take away these three important lessons: engage your audience, respond appropriately to criticism, and embrace the uncomfortable for the sake of progress.  

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Today, business means more than just mere products and services. Your organization needs to stand for something. Branding is what you tell the world; leadership is how you make it come true.

No one knows this dynamic better than Kevin Paul Scott.

Companies turn to Kevin for advice on how to up the meaning-quotient in their businesses, so that employees and customers alike champion the business as if it were their own.

Let Kevin come and teach your group about how to build a business and communicate corporate values in a way that resonates with consumers.

His speeches include:
• Building a Business with Meaning
• Leading When the Majority is Wrong
• In Changing Times, Hold to Unchanging Principles
• The War for Talent: Recruiting and Retaining Top Tier Talent
• Essential Exchanges: What You Have to Give Up to Go Up