Leadership in the Movies:
Twelve Angry Men

The Authentic Leader

This is part of a series of articles that combine two great passions of mine: leadership and movies. The series seeks to explore leadership through the lens of selected movies. Today we are looking at the 1957 movie Twelve Angry Men directed by Sidney Lumet and featuring Henry Fonda as Davies. I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis (so as not to spoil a great movie).

The film, set in a New York City courthouse, tells the story of a twelve man jury at the trial of an 18 year old Hispanic boy from the slums on trail for murdering his father. The trial, carrying a mandatory sentence of death by electric chair, is presented as an open and shut case and eleven of the jurors are quick to vote him guilty so that they can “all get out of here.” Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda, delivers a surprising and unpopular vote of not guilty. The film charts a fascinating journey of how each of the jurors, through careful argument and oftentimes heated discussion, turn around their decision and deliver a unanimous vote of not-guilty. It is Davies’ authenticity and authentic leadership that helps shift seemingly entrenched positions.

Authentic leadership is rooted in Greek philosophy. Socrates’ core teaching is to ‘know thyself’ and both Aristotle and Plato philosophised on such virtues as Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude. The term was coined by Robert Terry in 1993 but was popularised by Bill George. In True North, George writes that authentic self “rests on what you stand for and on being true to yourself.” Recent research, such as Psychology Today,
itemizes four distinct components to authentic leadership. Let’s take a look at these four components and relate them to the movie:

1. Self-Awareness (“Know Thyself”). A prerequisite for being an authentic leader is knowing your own strengths, limitations, and values. Knowing what you stand for and what you value is critical. Moreover, self-awareness and awareness of the impact you have on others is needed in order to develop the other components of authentic leadership. At the start of the movie, Davies stands by the window alone smoking a cigarette. He is thoughtful and reflective. As the movie unfolds it becomes obvious that Davies is supremely self aware of his core values and what he stands for and is prepared to stand alone and risk ridicule (“Boy oh boy… there’s always one”) and hostility (“What are you getting out this? Tricks? Or did somebody bump you on the head and you haven’t gotten over it?”) But he stands by his values because of his inner strength and integrity.

2. Relational Transparency (“Be Genuine”). This involves being honest and straightforward in dealing with others. An authentic leader does not play games or have a hidden agenda. You know where you stand with an authentic leader as they openly express their thoughts and feelings In the movie, Davies is very honest and transparent about his position. He frequently tells his fellow jurors of his uncertain feelings and anxieties about sending a boy “off to die without talking about it first.” When the other jurors try to convince him he is wrong, he empathises with their position and openly reveals self-doubt – “According to the testimony the boy’s guilty and maybe he is.” Unlike the other jurors, he avoids getting into side-conversations and negotiations outside of the main discussion and always expresses his point of view transparently to the entire group,

3. Balanced Processing (“Be Fair-Minded”). An effective authentic leader solicits opposing viewpoints and considers all options before choosing a course of action. There is no impulsive action or “hidden agendas”–plans are well thought out and openly discussed. Authentic leaders encourage others to question or challenge their values. In the movie, unlike the others, Davies deliberates on his decision, preferring to talk through and understand all the arguments and to understand others’ points of view. He uses powerful advocacy and inquiry skills and avoids making assumptions. He encourages open discussion “we want to hear your arguments” and reassures the other jurors of his genuineness for truth and understanding (“I’m not trying to change your mind”).

4. Internalized Moral Perspective (“Do the Right Thing”). An authentic leader has a self-regulated ethical core. They know the right thing to do and are driven by a concern for ethics and fairness executed through ethical decision making, judgement and behaviour. Davies expresses his moral dilemma early in the movie – ”there were 11 votes not guilty, it’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.” He publically admonishes people who seem not to be taking their role seriously – at one point he intervenes with two jurors who are playing a game on a scrap of paper; he screws it up saying “this isn’t a game”. He is not driven by self-importance or entrenched position – at one stage when he feels too alienated from the group, he feels the right thing to do is to encourage others to do the right thing by abstaining on a secret ballot vote and promising to switch his position if there were still eleven votes for guilty. At the close of the movie, Davies’ fairness, compassion and moral correctness leads him to help juror number three with his jacket, a man who was exposed as a “self-appointed public avenger… a sadist” and who threatened to kill Davies.

The consequence of Davies’ authentic leadership is clear to see. He commands respect, (when the bigot and the sadists talk, the other jurors move away; when Davies talks, they listen), he shifts entrenched views away from vengeance to justice, he encourages people to do the right thing and his actions deter a boy from being executed. He comes across as compassionate, thoughtful, sincere and genuine, qualities which attract followership.

In this fast-paced technological age where companies have folded because of unethical practice it is important to have some authentic leaders in the organisation to keep it focused on its core values and beliefs. Studying Davies, juror number eight, in the movie can help us appreciate the values, qualities and approach of an authentic leader.

Look out for further articles in this series.

Ric Kelly PhD.
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