by Thomas J. Lee
Housebound with a mid-summer head cold—a hacking cough and a raw throat—I spent the weekend gargling with warm saltwater and watching old movies. Thankfully, the cable networks obliged me with a marathon of Henry Fonda classics.
They were some of his gems, for sure: First he was a principled presidential aspirant in The Best Man (directed by Franklin Schaffner, 1964) with Cliff Robertson, Shelley Berman, and Lee Tracy. Then he played an innocent man, falsely accused as an armed robber, in the true-life story The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956) with Vera Miles as his disturbed wife.
Next, in Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962), Fonda portrayed a controversial presidential appointee, with Charles Laughton and Walter Pidgeon as cantankerous old warhorses of the U.S. Senate. Finally, he took the role of parolee Tom Joad in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940).
In some of his best roles, Fonda often portrayed wise but embattled leaders. You can learn a lot about leadership from watching these movies.
To my thinking, no film captures the challenge and opportunities of leadership better than 12 Angry Men, especially the original 1957 black-and-white movie, based on the play by Reginald Rose, directed by Sydney Lumet, and starring Henry Fonda and a cavalcade of other stars: Martin Balsam, Ed Begley, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, and a half-dozen more.
This taut drama—from start to finish, it runs only 96 minutes—is set entirely in a sweltering jury room of the courthouse in a big American city. The story itself is thrilling, and the acting is masterful. But best of all, 12 Angry Men is a case study in Socratic leadership—in other words, leadership by means of asking provocative, probing questions that compel people to rethink their assumptions and beliefs.
As the story opens, all but one of the jurors hastily fall in line to convict the defendant, a young Puerto Rican, on charges of murdering his father. Juror No. 8, played by Fonda, is the lone holdout.
The jury’s deliberations take us through an astounding and seismic shift. One by one, the other 11 jurors feel compelled to revisit and re-examine their initial judgment through the lens of their own character and the crucible of their own lives. The harder the life, the harder the re-examination.
The movie is all about leadership through effective communication. Indeed, many organizations use it to facilitate discussion around these issues. (One shortcoming is the exclusively white male cast. At the time this movie was filmed, U.S. trial juries were commonly so selected.) I strongly recommend viewing it.
When you watch the movie, notice that Juror No. 8 has no official authority beyond that of the other jurors. He isn't even the foreman. Yet he persuades his peers to reconsider. That is a good reminder that leadership doesn't require a title.
Then observe that the strength of his argument arises not from overbearing, omniscient certitude but rather from intellectual humility. What he doesn’t know is every bit as important as what he does know. His earnest reservations, rather than his earnest presumption of guilt, give energy to his argument and cause the other jurors to think more critically. His rhetorical technique consists largely of questions. We term this approach “inquiry-led dialogue.” It comes to leaders as a counterintuitive but powerful tool.
Writing about 12 Angry Men as an pedagogical device for business leadership, John K. Clemens observed:
“Persuasion—convincing strangers to consider new perspectives, new insights, new goals—is a fundamental, challenging task of leadership because it requires a deep investment of personal character, mental stamina, and a capacity for emotional insight perfectly balanced with the ability to reason. Logic and abundant feeling combine to persuade.
“What’s tricky about persuasion—and it’s this point that 12 Angry Men clarifies so thrillingly—is discerning the difference between getting others to think as you do, an obnoxious and risky use of power, and getting others to investigate themselves to discover common truths and facts—truths that transcend preference, prejudice, fear, and competitive jockeying. The courtroom drama, as a result, is usually a loud wake-up call as well, a reminder that there are such common truths.”
I have watched 12 Angry Men dozens of times, owing to the fact we use it in a workshop on leadership communication. Even today, I continue finding more nuances and insights on leadership with each new viewing.
In our workshops, we spoil the plot beforehand; we want everyone to watch the movie for its underlying insights more than for the drama of its plotline. So we encourage participants to be on the lookout for both the use and the effects of listening, accountability, reasoning, humility, open questions, and especially empathy.
As you watch it, pay special attention to Juror No. 8's ability to discern the behavioral signals of people—their often subtle but very real concerns, needs, orientation, and disposition. This is what we mean by empathy. Researchers have hypothesized—and found evidence to support—a positive correlation between this cognitive “sixth sense” and effective leadership. In short, leaders who are more empathic are better able to reach the fulcrum of their followers’ judgment.
Then ask yourself these questions:
- What did you notice about the styles of communication among the jurors? Which styles were most effective? Least effective?
- How would you describe Juror No. 8's leadership style?
- In addition to Juror No. 8, who showed leadership credibility and how? Who didn’t?
- Who showed respect, honor, and trust for others? Who didn’t? How did it appear as visible behavior? Did it weaken or strengthen leadership? What were its benefits? Its costs?
- Who showed empathy? How did it appear as behavior? Did it weaken or strengthen leadership? What were its benefits? Its costs?
- How would you describe the leadership of the nominal leader, the jury foreman (Juror No. 1, played by Martin Balsam)?
- What assumptions did some of the jurors make? In what ways did these assumptions demonstrate the presence or lack of respect, honor, and trust?
- Whose courage grew as the deliberations wore on?
- Contrast the perseverance and persistence of Juror No. 3 (played by Lee J. Cobb), Juror No. 4 (played by E.G. Marshall), Juror No. 8 (played by Fonda), and Juror No. 10 (played by Ed Begley). What do you learn about courage?
- Who nurtured dialogue? Who relied mainly on lecturing? What was the difference in their impact?
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