For this leadership report, we have chosen the movie « Dead Poets Society ». This movie was awarded for the best scenario in 1989 and was a great international success. We have selected this movie for different reasons that we will explain below.
First, some members of our work group were teenagers when the movie was released. At that time, in some way, they identified themselves to the characters of the movie who are also teenagers. “Carpe Diem” had become a very popular concept in French schools because teenagers were concerned by the vision of life presented in the movie. The youngest members of our work group saw the movie for the first time a few years ago and were also impressed by the originality of the scenario.
Moreover, we think that this movie covers many leadership aspects: each main character has his own type of leadership and there are interesting interactions and influences between the characters to speak about. For us, this movie has been like a “leadership laboratory” where to continue to learn from.
We would like to point out that we have analysed leadership in this movie taking into account that the story takes place in 1959, that is to say at a time when educational standards were different from today’s. In this respect, the behaviours of the adults like Mr Nolan (Director of the School) and Mr Perry (student’s father) sometimes may have appeared to us abusive, but at that time it was probably more common than today.
The « Dead Poets Society » can be summarised as follow:
In 1959, John Keating, an unconventional English literature teacher, has newly arrived at Welton Academy. This school is known for its prestigious teaching but also, and not the least, its rough and strict education.
For the students, Mr Keating will be much more than a teacher: he will be their guide. He will teach them what cannot be learnt from books: speak up their mind, make their own choice of life, and in the end become free spirits. He will deeply influence his students especially Todd and Neil.
Here is below a diagram that we have drawn up in order to represent the different characters and the influences they have on each others.
This report will be divided in three different sections. First, we will focus on Mr Nolan, Director of Welton, and Mr Perry, Neil’s father, as they both appear as strong authority figures in the movie. In a second part, we will present Mr Keating’s personality and leadership as an alternative to the authority figures. In a last part, we will focus on the personality and leadership of three other main characters that are students: Charlie Dalton, Neil Perry and Todd Anderson. We will then conclude this report by an open discussion on some particular aspects of leadership.
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Mr Nolan’s personality and relationships with the students
Mr Nolan is the Director of Welton. His mindset is based on the Four Pillars of Welton which are tradition, honour, discipline and excellence. He truly believes in these values and is programmed to execute them. He wants the values of the school to be strictly regarded by the students. They all must know the four Pillars and adhere to them. As we will see in the following paragraph, his personality is authoritarian and his leadership can be qualified as traditional and conservative.
At the beginning of the movie, his speech as part of the Welton welcoming ceremony reflects his mindset: he has a formal, solemn and very rigid attitude. He represents the “prestigious” Welton School and has a mission: “prepare boys for college”. It is his vision as a leader. During the ceremony, we can see pride on his face, particularly when he announces:
“Last year we graduated 51. And more than 75% of those went on to the Ivy League.” (03:10)
Both Mr Nolan and the ceremony he leads are traditionalist and conservative. We immediately understand that there is no place for imagination, innovation and creativity in this school.
Later on, when he meets some of the students at the end of the ceremony, we can see how important excellence is for him and how he subtly puts pressure on the boys:
Mr Nolan to Todd: “You have some big shoes to fill. Your brother was one of our finest” (04:42)
Mr Nolan to Neil : “We expect great things from you this year” (04:50)
The major trait of his personality is authority. His authority shows up very clearly in the middle of movie (01:12:06) when he arrives in the teachers’ room. He is very irritated due to an article that was written in the Welton Honour (school journal) that he qualifies as “profane”. This word “profane” that he uses is very strong. He wants strict sanctions to punish the ones that have written this article. He is also very suspicious. He has full power in the school and he is sure to find the guilty persons shortly. He expects a denunciation. His aim is to track down the ones that have dared to disregard the rules and the principles of the school and, in the end, defied his authority. Mr Nolan uses repression to serve the school’s values which illustrates some dictatorial behaviour.
Mr Nolan uses corporal punishment as a leadership tool. For instance he beats Charlie Dalton who is the boy who had written the article and then had dared to challenge him in public.
Mr Nolan’s relationship with Mr Keating
Mr Nolan is suspicious towards Mr Keating and discreetly observes him while he is teaching outdoor (01:03:06). The dialogues between Mr Nolan and Mr Keating look like a cordial confrontation as we will explain below.
Mr Nolan says to Mr Keating that he is older, has more experience, knows what education is and that he was teaching English as well « (â€¦) long before your time » (01:15:25), which shows that he expects respect from Mr Keating. Mr Nolan is imposing his vision of education on Mr Keating who is new in the school. Mr Nolan uses the word « unortodox » to qualify Mr Keating’s methods. Mr Keating does not seem impressed and is both polite and sarcastic when he answers to Mr Nolan:
“Well, your reprimand made quite an impression, I’m sure” (01:16:09).
Mr Nolan is not dupe and changes tactics towards Mr Keating asking him more concrete questions on his class. Mr Keating explains his own vision of education and life. Mr Nolan is then able now to openly criticize Mr Keating’s methods. Here follows a portion of the dialogue between the two characters illustrating the above:
Keating: “I have always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself ” (01:16:30).
Nolan: “At this boys’ age? Not on your life! Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college and the rest will take care of itself. “.
This dialogue clearly shows that none can dispute Mr Nolan’s views on education at Welton. This discloses an autocratic leadership from Mr Nolan. All teachers must have the same vision. Mr Nolan’s behaviour shows some aspects of the transactional leadership model that we saw in class: “when people have agreed to do a job, a part of the deal is that they cede all authority to their manager”. That is what he wants Mr Keating to understand. Moreover, it is obvious for Mr Nolan that “the prime purpose of a subordinate is to do what their manager tells them to do”. There is no possible discussion.
Mr Nolan’s leadership and honour
After Neil’s death, Mr Nolan keeps his self-control. He wants to put a final point to this incident by finding an ideal guilty person. Such a serious incident must not soil his honour and the prestigious image of Welton. A guilty person responsible for this tragic event must be found. This will exonerate Welton. Mr Keating is for Mr Nolan the perfect scapegoat as his methods and way of thinking are too different from the school’s principles.
All over the film, Mr Nolan is still the same: authoritarian and dictatorial: He does not tolerate to be challenged. He cannot stand « thinking different ». There is no change from the start to the end of the movie. He steers a course and his objective his clear: to be Welton’s servant and keep it in traditionalism and austerity to preserve its prestige.
Mr Perry is Neil’s father. As we will see below, he can also be regarded as a strong authority figure.
Mr Perry is a very strict man. He has a rigid behaviour both in his own way of life and in the way he educates his son. The way he wears, the severity of his face (when he is angry at his son) and some details like the way he carefully aligns his slippers on the ground when he goes to bed at the end of the move (1:38:27), reflect his mindset. His conception of life is based on strict order, discipline and planning.
On the one hand, Mr Perry is very authoritarian with Neil: “You do what I tell you, is that clear?” (08:09) He commends Neil: “I have spoken to Mr Nolan, you’re taking too many extracurricular activities this semester. I have decided you must drop the annual school”. (07:31)
On the other hand, Mr Perry becomes gentler with his son only when Neil agrees with him “If you need anything, let us know”.
In that way, Mr Perry’s leadership towards Neil has some patterns of the transactional leadership: he has full authority on his son and Neil just has to obey him. If Neil obeys, his father offers him his support, if not, he is “punished”. More than authoritarian, the leadership’s style of Mr Perry is dictatorial: Mr Perry does not listen to his son and imposes his own views to Neil without asking him his advice. He is uncompromising. For instance, he says to his son: “Tomorrow, I am withdrawing you from Welton and enrolling you in Braden Military School. You are going to Harvard and you’re gonna be a doctor.” (1:36:20)
Mr Perry does not understand his son. For instance, he says: “You have wasted your time with this absurd acting business” (1:18:52). It is like if Mr Perry and Neil were not speaking the same language: Mr Perry’s language is based on reason and Neil’s language is based on passion. Mr Perry also behaves as if he was himself persecuted by his son “why is it that you insist on defying us” (1:36:10). For instance, he also says “don’t ever dispute me in public, do you understand” (07:59).
He uses blackmail “you know how much this means to your mother, don’t you” (08:15). He wants his child to do the studies and have the carrier that he would have liked for himself “I have made many sacrifices to get you here and you will not let me down” (1:20:07). “You have opportunities that I never even dreamt of and I am not going to let you waste them” (1:36:41).
The result of Mr Perry’s leadership is that communication with his son is impossible. His son cannot see any exit to the situation, except suicide.
An alternative to the authority figures: Mr John Keating
“A leader must have the courage to act against an expert’s advice.” – James Callaghan – : that’s what Mr. Keating does. He goes against the school’s rules.
John Keating’s leadership has two sides: a charismatic one and also a visionary and entrepreneurial one.
“Charisma is a sparkle in people that money can’t buy. It’s an invisible energy with visible effects.” – Marianne Williamson –
John Keating’s leadership is mostly based on his personality. He is dynamic, enthusiastic, very dedicated to his students and very excited about schooling. The least we can say is that he is a very eccentric teacher that contrasts with the school’s strict atmosphere.
He makes a strong impression on his first day of class. The first scene when he meets the students for the first time is very important for the future relation he will have with them. They are all expecting a strict work atmosphere and teacher, but instead of that John Keating gets in the classroom whistling. The way the students are staring at each others shows how surprised they are by John Keating’s casual manner and apparent lack of concern.
He is the master of orchestra, trying to get the best of everyone. He can be seen as a guide, a spiritual leader who is providing an alternative way of learning, usually a funnier one. He makes the students realize they are the actors of their own destiny and that they have to choose their path. He pushes the students to go find answers by themselves using words as “find your own walk”, “strive to find your own voice”, “free up your mind” ,”dare to strike out and fine new ground” (1:02:39).
He seems to have a halo over his students, like a preacher. He believes in them and the students believe in him. Mr Keating’s aim is that the students get more confidence in themselves and dare go further taking initiatives.
The movie’s tagline “He was their inspiration. He made their lives extraordinary” also very well illustrates the charismatic leadership of Mr Keating.
Entrepreneurs and visionary leadership
“Leadership is the capacity and will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character which inspires confidence.” – Bernard Montgomery –
He is an entrepreneur: he has the guts to do things differently, to take initiatives. He is a risk taker. Indeed, instead of following 100 years of conventional education like his predecessors have done, he chooses an alternative: teach the students how to become free men and “seize the day”.
He teaches in unconventional ways. For example, the first lesson is done outside the classroom. Mr Keating makes it like a game, more tempting and dynamic. Here is below a sample of the dialogue between Mr Keating and one of the students illustrating the above:
“Mr Keating: Why the author does use these lines?
A student: Because he’s in a hurry
Mr Keating: No! Ding! Thank you for playing anyway!” (13:57)
Later on, he asks the students to rip out the pages of a literature book, which is unbelievable for the students. Doing this, Mr Keating wants to teach them that what is written in books is not always right and that they must think by themselves as free men.
Mr Keating’s relationship with the students
“Tell me, I will forget. Show me, I may remember. Involve me, I will understand.” – Chinese Proverb –
Mr Keating has a special way of teaching: he involves his students. Indeed, he has a strong conviction and belief that his students could do and be the best. He feels he has to fulfil a mission: to take to them far away, the further they can go. He just has to show them the way, which explains why he has a special bond with the students. The relation is based on trust, more than a teacher/ student relationship. The fact that the students are keen to follow him and play his game shows that he has succeeded in making this vision come true.
As an alumni of this school, he, better than anyone else, knows what it is like to be in their position. We can assume that it is why he is trying to be different and wants his lessons to help the students in real life.
He is a sensible and intuitive man: since the beginning, he is able to detect his students’ personality. He is very fast in getting the flaws of his students. He understands them and acts to help them develop their skills. This can be noticed in his behaviour with Todd. He sees that Todd needs some help. He detects Todd’s fear and takes actions to make Todd go beyond it:
Mr Keating “â€¦ I would kike you to compose a poem of your own, an original work”. (He’s leaving the class and comes back a few seconds later) “Mr Anderson. Don’t think that I don’t know that this assignment scares the hell out of you, you mole.” (42:28)
The limits of Mr Keating’s leadership
However, an unexpected event will put an end to Mr Keating’s methods: the suicide of one of the students, Neil. Mr Keating is held responsible for Neil’s death by the Management of the school and is then dismissed.
Mr Keating’s objectives were to develop the students. However, he has had no control over them and their actions. He has proposed an appealing alternative of learning, but has not cleared up the negative possible consequences. We can think that he has been too idealist and that he has brought with him too many big changes in an organization whose values and objectives were totally different from his. For this reason, we can assume that Mr Keating’s leadership was expected to probably fail one day or another.
Portrait of three different leaders among the students
Where he comes from
Charlie evolves in the same religious school environment as his friends. This environment is very authoritarian. It is based on rules and habits that must be respected. We know that Charlie comes from a wealthy family and that his father is a banker.
Charlie has a strong personality. He likes provocation and is sometimes a rebel. He is also the “funny guy” of the group. He is a happy-go-lucky person and can reveal himself thoughtless of the consequences of his actions.
All over the film, there are examples showing his rebel side. We can see this trait of his personality very clearly when he announces to his friends that he has released an illegal article in the school journal. In this article, he pleaded for the admission of girls at Welton, which is by nature an “insult” to the Management of the school. Charlie does not see the consequences of his act, but his friends do.
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Following the release of this article, the Director of the School, Mr Nolan wants to find the guilty person and for this purpose he organizes a meeting with all the students. At the meeting, Charlie follows up his idea and defies the authority of Mr Nolan, pretending that he is receiving a call from God asking for the admission of girls: « Welton Academy Hello ! Yes, he is. Just a moment. Mr Nolan, it’s for you. It’s God! Hey says we should have girls at Welton” (1:13:07).
He is also very proud. The scene that best shows his pride is just after he was kicked out by Mr Nolan as a punishment for the release of the article in the journal. As he is talking with his friends, he does not admit that he got hurt, but raises his head and reminds his friends of his warrior’s nickname “Nuwanda” (1:15:15).
Charlie likes his new teacher, Mr Keating, not only because of his original vision of poetry, but also because Mr Keating’s teaching methods make him free to experiment daring innovations. Charlie likes to experiment freedom. This is what we can see in the scene where Mr Keating asks the boys to walk in line. Charlie decides not to do the exercise saying to Mr Keating that he is “Exercising the right not to walk” (1:02:58). Mr Keating accepts Charlie’s position as he is precisely teaching the boys how to become free men.
At the beginning of the film, Charlie appears as a natural leader due to his personal traits: his is extravert, self-confident and impulsive. He has a sense of humour that the others appreciate. Because of his strong personality, his is the one that is noticed first in the group. He is the one who makes initiatives in the group. For instance, he is the first to hear Mr Keating and rip out the page of the poetry book: Mr Keating: “Go on. Rip out the entire page. You heard me. Rip it outâ€¦Thank you, Mr Dalton” (22:15).
He also chooses his own nickname “Nuwanda” (1:05:50) as if he was an Indian warrior. He is the only one in the group to do that and the others seem to admire him for his creativity. This shows that he also has some charisma.
Charlie’s strong personality remains constant all over the movie, but does not match with the austere and strict rules of the school. However, Mr Keating’s class and methods allow Charlie to express himself more freely.
Time after time, Charlie’s leadership over the group is getting less important because of Neil’s leadership that is showing up and growing. For instance, when Mr Keating asks the boys to stand up on the tables, Charlie is not the first to go, but Neil is.
We can say that Charlie does not remain a strong leader in the student’s group because his friends do not always understand and agree on his behaviours. Charlie acts on his own without consulting his friends. The result is that Charlie appears as uncontrollable and as someone who can put himself and his friends in danger (he released an illegal article in the journal). Charlie has then not kept the others’ confidence and cannot be considered by the others as their leader.
Neil is also a student at Welton and is one of most important characters in the movie. He lives in an authoritarian and respectful environment not only at Welton but also at home. He is expected to be compliant with strict and heavy rules and obey the strong authority of his father and school. Like all the students at Welton, he is supposed to follow a detailed order built around the four values of Welton: discipline, excellence, tradition and honor.
Neil is an enthusiastic and a dynamic boy. He is the initiator of the re-launch of the Dead Poets Society. Judging by the way he acts and talks, he is very determined and self confident. For instance, a lot of his sentences begin with “I want”. His excitement and passion show up very well when he decides to follow his vocation: drama.
In the movie, we can see that Neil’s personality has three different sides. Each of these sides appears depending on his circle of acquaintances: Neil appears as submissive to his father’s authority, he is more like a leader in his own group and finally he has a special bond with Mr Keating.
Neil’s relationship with his father
Neil’s personality weakens in front of his father, who represents the family authority: Neil seems to become compliant and passive. He does not dare to face him up, or to tell him that he wants a path different from what his father expects. He has a whole life planned by his father. His father’s authority overwhelms Neil and Neil cannot fight with him, but only express his agreement. Here are two examples of his “apparent” obedience to his father:
Mr Perry: “You’re taking too many extracurricular activities this semester, and I’ve decided that you should drop the school annual”
Mr Perry: ” [..]. Don’t you ever dispute me in public. Do you understand?”
Neil: “Father, I wasn’t disputing…”
Mr Perry: “After you’ve finished medical school… and you’re on your own, then you can do as you damn well please. But until then, you do as I tell you. Is it clear?”
Neil: “Yes, Sir. I’m sorry.” (7:23)
Mr Perry : “Don’t you dare talk back to me. It’s bad enough that you’ve wasted your time with this, this absurd acting business, but you deliberately deceived me. How did you expect to get away with this?… Answer me. Who put you up to it? Was it this new man? Keating?”
However, we have noticed that there is a big difference between what he says to his father and the way he acts. Indeed, although it is difficult for Neil to tell his father what he wants for himself, he does not hesitate to write a false letter usurping his father’s signature in order to play in the drama in which he has a role.
Neil’s relationship with his father contrasts with the one he develops with his teacher, Mr Keating.
c) Neil’s relationship with Mr Keating
One of the most interesting relationship in the movie is the one between Mr Keating and Neil, and more noteworthy the way it evolves. Neil is the first professor’s follower. He becomes totally fascinated by this teacher. Every time Mr Keating speaks, Neil is like captivated by Mr Keating’s words.
He admires him and considers him as a model with whom he can have free and confidential talks about his passions and dreams. Neil sees in his professor a mentor, teaching him how to live his life. He fully trusts his speech without questioning Mr Keating’s mindset.
d) Neil’s relationship with Todd
Regarding his relation with Todd, Neil is like a mentor to him; he takes him under his protection and decides to help him live his life.
Various scenes highlight the fact that Neil wants to help Todd by opening his mind to the world. For instance, Neil succeeds in convincing Todd to be part of the Dead Poets Society even if at first Todd does not want to because he does not want to take turn in reading. Neil does not want Todd to be excluded. He then offers to adapt the Dead Poets Society rules so that Todd does not have to read and feel comfortable in joining the Dead Poets Society.
Here is a scene illustrating the above:
Neil: “Todd, are you coming tonight?”
Neil: “Why not? God, you were there. You heard Keating. Don’t you want to do something about that?”
Todd: “Yes, butâ€¦”
Neil: “But? But What?”
Todd: “Keating said that everybody took turns reading, and I don’t want to do that.”
Neil: “Gosh, you really have a problem with that, don’t you?”
Todd: “No I don’t have a problem. I just… I don’t want to do it, okay?”
Neil: “All right. What if you didn’t have to read? What if you just came and listened?”
Todd: “That’s not how it works.”
Neil: “Well, forget how it works. What if they said it was okay?”
Todd: “What are you gonna go up and ask them? No Neil.”
Neil: “I will be right back.” â€¦ (30:47)
In this scene, Neil pushes Todd to participate in the Dead Poets Society meeting. He could have just let him be alone but he wants him to come: he cares for him. Neil reproduces with Todd the same type of relationship that exists between Mr Keating and himself: He listens to his friend and tries to help him the same way Mr Keating listens and tries to help Neil. Neil maybe recognizes himself in Todd as a shy boy who does not dare to speak his minds. Indeed, Neil behaves the same way when he is in front of his father. Neil knows too much this feeling of “weakness” and just cannot let his friend like this.
Finally Neil becomes a leader in his friends’ group thanks to his fascinated, enthusiastic and dynamic personality. He pushes his friends to rebuild the Dead Poet Society which makes him become a leader.
e) Neil’s leadership
Based on the characteristics of his personality as described above namely passion, enthusiasm and energy, we can say that Neil is a charismatic leader. He is the initiator of the re-launch of the Dead Poets Society and he has been able to communicate his energy to the other boys. Moreover he represents a model especially for Todd.
He is also an entrepreneurial leader. Indeed, he is a risk taker who does not hesitate to break rules. Indeed, he rebuilds a society that is unauthorized and must remain secrete. He also writes a false letter to serve his objective which is play in a drama: he dares to take initiatives.
He is also a relational leader who cares about developing the others’ skills particularly with Todd as we have explained in the above section.
f) Neil’s evolution
“Leadership is a serving relationship that has the effect of facilitating human development.” – Ted Ward –
Mr Keating’s leadership has revealed Neil’s personality: It evolves throughout the film. At first, we discover a person with an erased personality in front of the family’s authority. Thanks to Mr Keating, Neil is going to develop his self-awareness and freedom of mind. This new awareness will lead him to position himself as leader in his friends’ group. Neil then becomes more passionate and dreamy. He fulfills his passion for drama thanks to the self-confidence he has developed. However, this personal development will not help him to speak up his mind to his father because he probably realizes that there is a too big difference between his father’s expectations and his own ones. He believes that communication with his father is just not possible and that he has no solution, but suicide.
Where he comes from
Todd is a new student at Welton. His brother was himself a student at Welton before. Todd’s brother was one of the finest students and is remembered in everyone’s memory as an excellent student. As the Director of the School meets Todd for the first time, he says to Todd that he will have “big shoes to fill”. When Todd is introduced to Neil’s friends, one of them immediately refers to his brother’s success: “you are that Anderson! Valedictorian, National Merit Scholar” (07:05). The strong image of his successful brother is difficult to cope with for Todd. Todd depreciates himself. This probably comes from the fact that his parents are completely focused on his brother and not sufficiently on Todd. For instance, each year Todd gets the same present from his parents for his birthday. As a result, Todd feels like “abandoned” by his parents. He feels like an “outsider”.
This may illustrate the psychodynamic leadership theory: The parents have an influence on their children’s leadership when they are grown. Todd’s brother probably has had the esteem and confidence of his parents as the older son, which helped his development and success. Todd, the younger boy, probably has had less attention from his parents which has resulted in his lack of self-confidence.
When he arrives at Welton, his family environment, and more especially his brother, is a heavy burden to cope with for Todd.
Todd is shy and introvert. He does not feel comfortable with others. He does not take any initiatives to make friends, but only responds to initiatives made by Neil and his friends. He is often on his own, studying at his desk. Todd lacks self-confidence and does not want to be noticed in a way or another. For instance, when Neil offers him to be part of the Dead Poets Society, Todd says “no, noâ€¦ Keating said that everybody took turns reading and I do not want to do that” (30:58). He does not want Neil to ask the other boys if they would agree on the fact that Todd would not read. This shows that he wants to be transparent to others. He also has some self-awareness as he points out his weaknesses to Neil: “I am not like you Neil, you say things and people listen, I am not like that” (45:49).
Todd sticks to the rules strictly “that is how it works” (31:20) he says about the rules of the Dead Poets Society. He does not explore creativity and is then not able to look at alternatives different from the existing framework. For Todd, the authority of the adults (parents, director and teachers) prevails over everything else. When Neil wants to write a ‘false’ letter usurping his father’s signature, Todd says that it is impossible to do that. Instead, he tries to convince Neil to ask his father the right to be in a play. In doing this, he tries to protect Neil from any serious problem with his father: “he will kill you if he finds out you went to an audition and did not tell him” (44:38).
On the one hand, due to his personality and family context, Todd does not dare things. He is very static and conformist. On the other hand, he is cautious and does not take any unconsidered risks.
Todd develops a strong friendship with Neil. He admires his friend who has charisma, vision and creativity. Todd is considered by Neil, which is something Todd had lacked so far as his parents have been focused on his brother only.
Todd seems to consider Neil as a mentor: He can talk with him of personal difficulties, and get boosted b
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