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July 2024
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Leadership Lessons From Unlikely Characters

Guidance from some of your favorite fictional cartoons.

By Shannon Dewey


What are the traits of a successful leader? While we often regard those in positions of power as people to emulate, their behavior may not always demonstrate good leadership. But a few fictional characters have a proven track record of making an impact while mentoring and leading others. See who you might identify with, or who you strive to be.



Yellow Winnie the Pooh bear cartoon in red shirt

Winnie the Pooh

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

Winnie the Pooh is a benevolent bear known for his relationship with his human friend, Christopher Robin. But where he really shines is as the charismatic leader of his fellow animals in the Hundred Acre Wood. Winnie the Pooh and his friends sometimes run into problems while on their adventures (Oh, bother), but he maintains a positive attitude even during challenges. His empathy and honesty show through when the other animals look to him for answers, which is often. Whether it’s battling heffalumps and woozles, or just checking up on Eeyore’s well-being, Winnie the Pooh’s loyalty and leadership is abundant.

Key traits:
  • Team player
  • Problem solver
  • Humble




“You told me my journey was impossible. Yet here I stand, proof that there is a place for people like us.”

Mulan is the heroine of her movie, overcoming many obstacles while trying to discover her identity and maintain her cultural responsibilities. After taking her father’s place when he was called by the military, she found herself outside of her comfort zone and without the respect of her comrades. She eventually proved herself through her bravery and savvy decision-making while fighting the Hun Army, ultimately saving her captain’s life and the people of China. She earned everyone’s trust in the end, never giving up on her objective and always putting the needs of others ahead of her own.

Key traits:
  • Strategic thinker
  • Empathetic
  • Dedicated


Blue baboon Rafiki from The Lion King movie in the trees


“The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”

Rafiki is the eccentric monkey mentor for Simba in the movie The Lion King. While his methods may have been unconventional at times (like hitting Simba over the head with his stick), his messages still got through. He offers sage wisdom to the lost lion on his journey to becoming king of the pride, and while he must relay hard truths, he does so with the best intentions. His obscure analogies often held a deeper meaning, all while trying to help Simba overcome his painful past. Rafiki’s name in Swahili translates to “friend”—fitting for this lifelong advisor.

Key traits:
  • Strong mentor
  • Honest feedback
  • Motivator



“You can’t focus on what’s going wrong. There’s always a way to turn things around, to find the fun.”

Living up to her namesake, Joy is the cheerful and energetic character from the movie Inside Out. She’s also the ringleader for all the emotions that live inside the mind of a young girl named Riley. Her true leadership qualities emerge as she wrangles the rest of the emotion characters—Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness—to help Riley get through a challenging time in her life. While Joy was resistant to change at first, she listened to the other emotions and came to understand how they worked better as a team.

Key traits:
  • Emotionally intelligent
  • Positive mindset
  • Learns from mistakes


Olaf the snowman cartoon from Frozen movie holding yellow hat with blue background


“Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.”

Olaf is the affable snowman from the movie Frozen. While naïve in nature (he dreams and sings about the heat of summer), Olaf comes through for his friends with compassion, sincerity, and simple advice no matter what is happening around them. In the movie, Olaf is a side character, but his friendly nature and approachability can be desirable traits of a leader in the making. His innocence helps him see the world differently, noticing details others might miss. Olaf may not be CEO material, but perhaps his loveable qualities would earn him the role of Club President.

Key traits:
  • Optimistic
  • Outgoing
  • Good listener

Winnie the Pooh: Collection of children’s stories by A.A. Milne, published in 1926

Mulan: Mulan—1998 film produced by Walt Disney Pictures

Rafiki: The Lion King—1994 film produced by Walt Disney Pictures

Joy: Inside Out—2015 film produced by Pixar Animation Studios

Olaf: Frozen—2013 film produced by Walt Disney Pictures

Woody: Toy Story—1995 film produced by Pixar Animation Studios


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