Leadership in the Movies:
To Kill a Mockingbird

Leadership and Emotional Intelligence


Harper Lee died on Friday (19/2/2016) aged 89. Her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (Open Library ebook) which sold 40 million copies worldwide was published in 1960 and tells the story of a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, defending a black man, Tom Robinson, in 1930s American Deep South. It was made into an Oscar winning movie in 1962 directed by Robert Mulligan with screenplay by Horton Foote and staring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

Many have written about the key narrative themes of race, childhood, rape and justice in the book/movie. Watching the movie last night through the lens of leadership, it struck me how the lawyer, Atticus Finch, is an exemplification of leadership and emotional intelligence.

As we know, emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to perceive and intentionalise emotions – to make choiceful/rational judgements concerning which emotions befit the right circumstance. Some misinterpret emotional intelligence to mean the suppression/denial of emotion; this is far from the case. An emotional intelligent individual discriminates between emotional states in order to aid rational decision-making. Aristotle was enlightening on this point when he wrote “Anyone can become angry, that is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not easy.” This citation is printed in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (Open Library ebook), an author who has helped popularise the subject in the last few decades but is a controversial figure within the broader EI community (some of whom first started publishing papers on EI in the mid-sixties). One of the widely cited definitions of emotional intelligence comes from Mayer & Salovey, 1997 :

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.

Atticus Finch has characteristics of what we would term today emotional intelligence and leaders can learn a lot about emotional mastery by reading the book or watching the movie. Let´s explore how Finch uses emotional intelligence by employing the EI ability model ( Mayer & Salovey, 1997) as characterised by Maria Platsidou in A study of the relation between moral judgment and emotional intelligence.

1) Perceiving/Identifying Emotions – the ability to recognize how you and those around you are feeling.

A great quality of Atticus Finch is his supreme emotional self-awareness. He is thoughtful and measured in his response, especially with his children, and empathises with others  (to adopt Goleman’s terminology from Empathy 101). Atticus encourages Scout to empathise with others before judging:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Atticus is sensitive to the feelings of others. At the start of the story, he detects Mr. Cunningham´s awkwardness in paying him hickory nuts for legal work he undertook, telling his daughter, Scout, that “it embarrasses him to be thanked.”

2) Using emotions – the ability to generate emotion and facilitate thought.

The courtroom scene is a powerful example of how Atticus uses his emotional intelligence to reach out and generate genuine reflection. He defends Tom Robinson using all of his abilities of empathy, understanding and self-regulation, presenting a rational account of what happened and urging the jury to review the evidence “without passion”.

3) Understanding Emotions – the ability to understand complex emotions and emotional “chains”, i.e., the transition of emotions transition from one stage to another.

As Scout says, “there just didn’t seem to be anyone or anything Atticus couldn´t explain.” He is supremely gifted in discerning the emotional nuances that underlie behaviours. Great examples of this is when he explains the town´s racial attitude to Scout and in his summation to the jury where he seeks to understand the motivating behaviour behind Mayella Ewell’s fallacious testimony:

I have nothing but pity in my heart for the chief witness for the state. She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance — but my pity does not extend so far as to her putting a man’s life at stake which she has done in an effort to get rid of her own guilt. I say guilt, gentlemen, because it was guilt that motivated her. She has committed no crime, she has merely broken a rigid and time honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with. She must destroy the evidence of her offense. What was the evidence of her offense? Tom Robinson, a human being. She must put Tom Robinson away from her. Tom Robinson was her daily reminder of what she did.

4) Managing Emotions – the ability which allows you to manage emotions in yourself and in others.

Self-regulation (Goleman´s terminology) and defusing anger are both explored in the novel/movie. In one scene, Mr. Ewell spits in Atticus Finch´s face in front of Jem. Finch does not flinch but exercises self-control and turns away. Defusing anger/conflict in others is a particular EI skill and Atticus shows this ability when he deflects Mrs. Dubose´s anger by using strong social skills (Goleman´s terminology). Jem puts it more simply “He gets her interested in something nice so she forgets to be mean.” Atticus becomes a role-model for his children both of whom defuse awkward situations. Jem invites Walter Cunningham Jr home to supper after Scout fights with him in the school yard and an angry mob disperse when Scout starts talking with them outside the town jail.

Emotional intelligence is a learned behaviour and watching To Kill a Mockingbird or reading the novel can help leaders see emotional intelligence in action rather than in theoretical models. It also helps us understand the impact of EI on leadership and character; having strong emotional intelligence cultivates moral judgement (Maria Platsidou, Saarni et. al explore a correlation between emotional intelligence and moral development arguing “A balanced, well-lived life, characterized by moral integrity [and judegement], is one that reflects mature emotional competence“, authenticity (see my article on this), credibility, respect and followship.

In memory to Harper Lee for shining a light…
(April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016)

Ric Kelly PhD.