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4 leadership lessons from Tom Cruise’s latest box office comeback

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation Photograph by Paramount Pictures

Over the weekend, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the fifth installment in the lucrative action thriller franchise starring Tom Cruise, opened to an impressive $56 million at the U.S. box office. In addition, the movie has made $65 million overseas so far.

It’s a coup for Cruise, who saw his career skyrocket after Top Gun in the 1980s but then watched it sink like a stone in 2005 after a silly couch-jumping stunt on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which went viral on YouTube. This was followed by other media fiascos, including his interview on the Today Show in which the Scientologist attacked actress Brooke Shields over her use of antidepressants for postpartum depression.

It’s been a tough ride for Cruise since then, but not only has he survived the media’s unforgiving spotlight over the past 10 years, he seems to have made a comeback as a highly bankable movie star. Most politicians and CEOs can relate to Cruise, as they know what it’s like to have almost every move dissected under the public spotlight. And so, the following are 4 leadership lessons any leader can draw from Cruise’s Hollywood comeback.

When you’re in a hole, stop digging

Cruise’s couch-jumping episode wasn’t really a serious one and should have vanished from the public consciousness after a short time. But when combined with the movie star’s bizarre, and what some call irresponsible rant about the use of anti-depressants, it painted an image of a celebrity coming apart at the seams.

Initially, Cruise seemed to double down on his beliefs in Scientology but eventually did the smart thing and stopped talking about it. As the negative press about him mounted, he probably realized that his personal behavior had placed him in a career hole and the first thing he had to do was stop digging.

Cruise seems to have become less vocal about his involvement with Scientology. That doesn’t mean he’s completely free of baggage but at least he’s stopped giving the media fodder for his own destruction.

Leave publicity to the right professionals

The best leaders surround themselves with the best professionals they can find and listen to their advice, especially when it comes to critical functions like publicity. For the longest time, Cruise had a clever public relations team stage-managing his career. Pat Kingsley of PMK was a powerhouse publicist who carefully controlled Cruise’s public image. It was a successful partnership.

But just before his publicity crisis began, Cruise surprised Hollywood by firing her and replacing her with his sister, also a Scientologist, according to Vanity Fair. It was a terrible move and very telling because a veteran like Kingsley could quite possibly have prevented the fiasco. She reportedly told Cruise to “cool it” with Scientology, which was smart advice – had he taken it.

Since then, however, Cruise replaced his sister with a professional publicist, first Paul Bloch and now Amanda Lundberg, who seems to be doing a much better job of maintaining his image than his sister did during the disastrous Oprah and Today show period. He clearly realized that publicity, particularly for a movie star, is not something to be gambled with.

Get in on the joke

Following his seeming meltdown, Cruise’s movies performed unevenly. Some, like War of the Worlds, did well while other surefire bets like Mission Impossible 3 failed to live up to expectations (even though they were still profitable). To add to his troubles, his longtime studio partner, Paramount Pictures, jettisoned him. Cruise wasn’t exactly a failure but neither did he command the box office clout he once possessed. For the movie-going audience, he seemed to have become a joke.

So he decided to get in on the joke instead of being victimized by it.

In 2008, Cruise played a small but significant role in the comedy film Tropic Thunder, playing a sleazy and profane studio executive named Les Grossman. His hilarious performance, which indirectly seemed to be poking fun at himself, was well-received by audiences and critics alike. Even though the role didn’t solve Cruise’s PR problems overnight, it could be argued that it did a fair amount to soften his image.

By being willing to laugh at himself, including appearing in an absurd dance sequence at the end of the film reminiscent of a similar scene in Risky Business, Cruise was able to restore his greatest asset – his likability.

Stay focused

Cruise has always been known for his unerring focus, which is perhaps why the public was so distracted and jarred by his couch-jumping and Scientology antics. Yet even during that period, Cruise never stopped working, and since then has produced a solid body of work, including a dramatic turn in Lions for Lambs and a compelling performance in the historical action thriller Valkyrie, not to mention several Mission Impossible movies of reasonably even quality and success.

Cruise knows what his audience wants and works hard to provide it consistently. Despite his forays into comedy and drama, he is above all an action star and has remained true to that. In the first five minutes of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, for example, Cruise performed an eye-popping stunt by dangling off the side of an airplane as it takes off. That stunt, which has been the centerpiece of the movie’s marketing campaign, both defines and confirms Cruise’s specialty.

That consistency has kept his career afloat over the past decade and is a good lesson in how to weather storms. Even though the press and the public have seemed to take more pleasure in ridiculing him than applauding his work, Cruise has exhibited strong leadership qualities by staying on track and remaining confident of his own box office potential.

S. Kumar is a tech and business commentator. He has worked in technology, media, and telecom investment banking.