How the New Movie Nyad Shows Entrepreneurial Leadership in Action

Jodie Foster and Annette Bening pose by the sea

The sea is immense and unforgiving, but endurance swimmer Diana Nyad didn’t let that stop her. 

Four times, she tried to swim from Cuba to Florida, a grueling physical challenge, one marked by sharks, jellyfish, and strong currents. Four times, she failed.  

After each failure, Nyad made adjustments and tried again. She assembled a team for support. She wore a custom mask to protect her from jellyfish stings. “Each attempt resulted in learning from failure,” says Keith Rollag, professor of management at Babson College. 

Annette Bening in the water
Every time that Diana Nyad, as portrayed by Annette Bening, fails in her attempt to swim to Florida from Cuba, she learns from her mistakes and tries again. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Finally, in 2013, she succeeded, becoming the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective shark cage. The swim, which covered 110 miles, took almost 53 hours to complete. Nyad was 64 at the time. 

Nyad, a movie about Nyad’s experiences starring Annette Bening in the title role and Jodie Foster as her coach, is now playing on Netflix. Besides being an inspirational biopic, the film serves as a stellar illustration of entrepreneurial leadership in action. 

“It’s a beautiful example of entrepreneurial leadership, learning from failure, and never giving up,” Rollag says. 

We asked Babson thought leaders to offer more recommendations of recent books, articles, movies, and websites that explore the nuances and strengths of entrepreneurial leadership. Here is what they had to say: 

Social Design 

Cheryl Kiser, executive director of Babson’s Institute for Social Innovation, recommends a book by business strategist and designer Cheryl Heller, The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design

The book examines how design can be used to address complex social challenges. “Cheryl Heller has chosen human beings who apply the principles of social design to create extraordinary impact and change in places the world needs most,” Kiser says. 

Music and Innovation 

Kiser also recommends Two Beats Ahead: What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation, a book by Panos A. Panay of the Berklee College of Music and R. Michael Hendrix of design firm IDEO. “They interview some of the nation’s top musicians and business leaders about how they approach innovation differently,” Kiser says. “Baked into these stories are lessons about entrepreneurial leadership.” 

Celebrating Leaders 

Phillip Kim, the Lewis Family Distinguished Professor in Social Innovation, recommends the work of Meaningful Business, an organization celebrating and supporting business leaders who are seeking to address the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.  

To peruse the organization’s website is to see leaders committed to pursuing, not just profit, but also purpose. “I’m inspired by the work of Meaningful Business,” Kim says, “and all the entrepreneurial leaders this organization spotlights who are working to solve the toughest problems in our society.” 

Coaching Competencies 

Scott Taylor, the Arthur M. Blank Endowed Chair for Values-Based Leadership, recommends an article in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Titled “Competencies of Coaches that Predict Client Behavior Change,” the article looks at the competencies—achievement orientation, adaptability, emotional self-control, empathy, organizational assessment, influence—that make for effective coaching. 

Taylor believes the article has insights about entrepreneurial leadership. “I believe entrepreneurial leaders are outstanding coaches and would therefore demonstrate the same competencies discussed in the article,” he says. 

Strategic Networking 

Shakenna Williams ’94, the executive director of Babson’s Frank & Eileen™ Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership, recommends Strategic Networking 2.0: Harness the Power of Connection and Inclusion for Business Success. Written by Juliette Mayers, the CEO and founder of the consulting firm Inspiration Zone, the book takes a new approach to building and harnessing relationships, such a critical part of entrepreneurial leadership. 

“Juliette Mayers challenges the conventional approach to networking,” Williams says, “emphasizing the need to move beyond transactional interactions toward building authentic, purpose-driven relationships that align with one’s vision and strategy.” 

Fishing Lessons 

Finally, Williams suggests a book that’s close to her heart, Hooked: Entrepreneurial Leadership Skills Learned While Fishing with My Dad. She wrote the personal book, which draws parallels between the patience, discipline, and knowledge necessary for both fishing and entrepreneurship. 

“The book not only shares a personal journey,” Williams says, “but it also imparts invaluable lessons for budding entrepreneurs, steering them toward success in their ventures.” 

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