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Movie Analysis Of Leadership Development

Info: 3374 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 1st May 2017 in History

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“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

-Eleanor Roosevelt

The above stated lines speak up the spirit of Norma Rae and the power of a leader. The quotation highlights the two main points shown in the film; the strength and courage of a woman and the idea of justice and equal rights for all. The film shows how an oppressed, young American lady who in initial stage did not had courage to fight against intolerable environment, converts into a charismatic leader and helps up bringing the whole textile labour society.

The Film:

The film Norma Rae’s release came in an era when labour unions were falling out of favour with the American public and politicians appeared eager to criticize organized labour for harming American competitiveness in the global marketplace. Norma Rae (played by actress Sally Field) focuses on the experiences of an individual who lived in Roanoke Rapids, NC and played a leadership role in the struggle to win union representation from the J.P. Stevens Company. Her real name was Crystal Lee. Crystal Lee had grown up in a family of mill workers, laboured in a variety of jobs, including textiles, and then, rather suddenly, discovered an interest in unions when she heard the speech of an organizer who had come to Roanoke Rapids. She successfully demonstrated that power is not based on title or status; it comes by connecting with people and standing up for what you believe in (Goleman et al, 2002). The movie clearly sends out the message that strong will power, hard work and determination can surely make impossible possible. It substantiates the bonding between a leader and his follower, the importance of such a symbiotic relationship and how the follower can become a leader too by synergizing bonds. It is a live commentary on the inherent leadership potential lying latent in everyone of us and how the environmental factors, situations and a suitable guidance can convert us into a charismatic leader.

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The movie begins with the loud noise of machines in the mill doing its job and still shots from Ms. Rae’s life from being an infant to a sad woman, one amongst the 800 mill-workers; a cog in the cotton mill machinery who is not enjoying life, but is only struggling with it to survive. Workers are portrayed as being machines themselves making machines in unceasing eight hour shifts and trying to come to terms with this machine age .Norma Rae’s mother facing the problem of temporary deafness due to the unbearable noise produced by the machines in the mill. These pathetic working environmental conditions with short and few breaks in-between the working hours, no windows, no proper working conditions and poor management played a major role in transforming Norma Rae into a leader.

To begin with, she is a young, hard working, energetic lady with no decided goals. She is a rebel without a cause, unharnessed youth of the age who fearlessly confronts the management. The bosses first tried to hold her by offering a rise in salary by 1$/hr and offering a higher position than others. At first, she plays into their hands, she accepted the offer, but when she was cut off from her people and saw an attitude change in them then she realizes a very important lesson of life that to find strength, one must be with and from the people.

Then comes into play Reuben Warshofsky (played by Ron Leibman), an urban union leader who knows the labour laws and the legal system and just needs an insider to materialize his goals from within, who could support him in serving the good cause of publicising the labour union and telling the benefits of it. With Rueben’s coordination and learning, Norma slowly transforms into a strong and confident leader. This symbiotic conventional mentor-protégée bond develops into an affective partnership where Norma and Reuben spread awareness and overcome personal and work related obstacles together. Reuben’s authority, knowledge and wittiness to handle situations helped making a path and strategy to confront the problems.

Norma Rae had been marketed to the American public as a story about a female “Rocky” and as a film that exuded feminist spirit while not overtly preaching feminism.

Leadership Styles:

There are various leadership styles reflected by various characters in the film “Norma Rae”, following theories and styles help us explain them:

Leadership’s gender perspective

Transformational Leadership

Authoritarian and Participative leadership Style

Contingency Theory and Situational leadership

Vision Development


Social Identity Theory

Leadership’s gender perspective:

Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, “She doesn’t have what it takes.” They will say, “Women don’t have what it takes.” (Clare Boothe Luce)

There is a cultural ideal in most societies that generally men are the leaders. This ideal persists despite the fact that women in many nations have participated in governing the whole nation operating at the topmost positions like Prime Minister and President (Table 1). There still seems to be, in some circles, a belief in some societies that women do not belong in the leadership, and are especially ill-perceived in leadership positions. There still appears to be a commonly held belief that, while women are tolerated in the ranks, many men still believe that leadership in their domain alone. The male centred society has usually associated women with certain specific roles; such taking care of household tasks, looking after children etc. The film “Norma Rae” tries to evolve such typical and orthodox mindset. The above said sentences can easily be collected from a scene where Norma’s husband shows anger on her when she used to come late and tries to let her realize her duties towards household works like washing clothes, cooking food, and looking after kids. But Norma made him realize that she has been working for a great cause and motive and he should understand it. Norma proves it to the whole society that women can not only look after the house and children but also can work, earn, lead and change the system. She also proves that women who are not associated with leadership can be taught and developed to be good leaders. It is truly and beautifully said that: Women have certain characteristics that give them an edge over men in being leaders, like- empathy, and a caring attitude (Heller, 1982).

Transformational Leadership:

“Transformational leadership is a leadership approach that is defined as leadership that creates valuable and positive change in the followers. A transformational leader focuses on “transforming” others to help each other, to look out for each other, to be encouraging and harmonious, and to look out for the organization as a whole. In this leadership, the leader enhances the motivation, morale and performance of his follower group” (source: www.wikepedia.org).

This is a leadership style exhibited primarily by Rueben, Norma gradually adopts this style. Transformational Leadership occurs when the leader take a visionary position and inspires others to follow. The essence of transformational leadership lies making the followers understand the goals and inspire them to achieve them (Bass et al, 1994). Like many other leaders Norma used the help of her mentor Rueben to understand various leadership traits. To understand the complexity of the environment Rueben who is the mentor here shares all his knowledge and expertise with his protégé Norma, to become a better leader. Norma evolves as a leader with the help of her mentor, Rueben. She learnt about how she can help people to fight the inequality and how to make them stand against the prevailing evils in the work environment. She understands the fact that:

“To lead, one must follow.”

-Lao Tzu

Reuben has better Leadership skills than Norma, but his profession and demands matched while that of Norma didn’t. Rueben’s strength lies in the fact that he inspires people to come forward and realise their potential. He follows the principle of Leadership Development. Reuben better knows how to use the processes of leadership development, i.e., assessment, challenge and support (Howell et al, 2006). Rueben has a better understanding than Norma about of the psychology of his followers to inspirationally motivate them and intellectually stimulate them (Pierce et al, 2008). He makes Norma and the workers understand the fact that a union is essential for them and thus sets the ball rolling. Norma takes the lead and spreads awareness amongst the workers. Norma’s leadership style is quite inspired by Rueben and she also grows up into a transformational leader. Norma learned the lesson from Rueben:

“If you are not the lead dog scenery never changes”

(Source: LeadershipAdvanceOnline)

Authoritarian and Participative leadership style:


“This style is used when leaders tell their employees what they want done and how they want it accomplished, without getting the advice of their followers.”

(Source: www.nwlink.com)

Norma is shown as an energetic and hard working character in this film, thus authoritarian characteristic, though in a very small content, is exhibited in her natural characteristics. This style is used when Norma tells her peers working for the formation of the labour society about what they want to be done and how she wants it to be accomplished, without getting the advice from them. This leadership style can even be seen the scene when Norma shouts on one of her peer for not getting the work done on time and she had to spend extra effort on augments than to concentrate on other core tasks like planning and management. This leadership style is primarily exhibited by management of O.P Henley textile mill; the management is too much authoritarian and does not want any employee to raise voice against the odds in the mill. The management misuses it’s authority to restrict union activities been performed by Norma in the work place. The management is least bothered about the employee care, they just want the work to be done without giving any concerns to the voice, needs and requirements of employees. The management of O.P Henley textile mill seems to deny the truth:

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”

-Kenneth Blanchard

Participative (Democratic):

“This style involves the leader including one or more employees in the decision making process (determining what to do and how to do it) “

(Source: http://www.nwlink.com)

This leadership style is very much exhibited in the Norma Rae character of the film; in fact the core of the film revolves round this leadership quality. Norma Rae participates in decision making with Rueben. Planning, controlling, pursuing, managing, organizing, and all other tasks are performed by her in a participative manner, either with the peer members of the union supporting group, peer workers or Rueben. An example of participative leadership of Norma could be seen in a scene in which she and the fellow employees wear a large union button in the work setting to speak their fellow workers about joining a union which was protected under the new rules. Norma used to involve and convince people working in the mill to get involved in union formation; she generally used to take inputs from peer workers and Rueben on how to manage tasks.

Situational Leadership:

Another leadership concept clearly visible from the film “Norma Rae” is Situational Leadership or the Contingency Theory of Leadership. As per this concept the leadership style is contingent to situations and circumstances (Howell et al, 2006). It is said to be the best style of leadership. The style to be used depends on the readiness level of the people the leader is trying to influence (Pierce et al, 2008). Norma Rae realized the intolerable situation of the textile mill workers were working in, that propelled her to change of the situation and lead the labour society to form a union for their own and for the sake of whole textile labour society.

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Situational leadership is clearly demonstrated by Norma Rae in the scene when after getting fired from her job in the mill, she mounted a table in her work room and held up a sheet of cardboard with the word “UNION” marked on it in large letters. She turned around slowly, demonstrating her bold message to the assorted hemmers, terry cutters and packers in the room. As a result of this action, the workers who had been facing the unbearable situations since long, without revolting, were stunned and realized that the time has come to be united and to stand against the management for the common objective of equality and justice, Norma clearly demonstrated her leadership in the odd situation, this scene though silent left a big impact and played a major role in union formation in American textile industry. By demonstrating situational leadership at various instances Norma Rae proved the following definition of leadership:

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it”

– Dwight Eisenhower

Vision Development:

“A vision is a guiding image of what success looks like. It answers the question what do you wish to become.” (Source – www.thepracticeofleadership.net)

Norma Rae is a southern textile worker employed in a factory with intolerable working conditions. She was born and brought up in a family of workers who were facing these conditions since long. In the opening scene of the movie, the viewer is immediately introduced to what it might really be like working all day in a textile factory. The operation of the machinery is deafening. At the end of the scene, we discover that is exactly the case as Norma Rae realizes her own mother cannot hear. Norma from her past had a vision of what is prevalent in the environment and needs to be removed, but since she was used to it and was unaware of her latent leadership abilities she was unable to pursue that vision. Rueben made her realize her leadership capabilities and supported her vision to resolve the issues which she and the society was facing since long. To use vision as a strategy, she needed to define three elements-the plan, current state and desired state (Refer appendix 2). It means defining where she was now, where she wanted to be in the future and how she was going to get there This concern about the situation gave her the gumption to be the key associate to a visiting labour union organizer. They knew the present situation, they developed a plan and structure to bring as many people together with them as possible. Together, they undertook the difficult, and possibly dangerous, struggle to unionize her factory) and saved the future of many workers working in textile industry. It was their vision which led them to succeed and let them attain their objectives. Norma’s success which was lead by her vision justifies the following quote:

“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”

-Theodore Hesburgh


“Don’t be afraid of opposition. Remember, a kite rises against; not with; the wind.” – Hamilton Wright Mabie

This is the main idea which Norma Rae seems to be following in the film. Any leader cannot grow without facing conflicts or without fighting the situations against him/her. In the film “Norma Rae”, Norma also comes across various conflicts while trying to achieve her goal. The first conflict is at her workplace i.e. against the management of O.P. Henley Textile Mill, the mill management never wanted Norma to form a union, and the management was against her since the beginning of union chapter. Norma had to face many conflicts from the management, some examples of it are, the management warned her at various moments that she might lose her job if she continues to raise voice for union in the work place, she was asked why she used workplace telephone in office hours?, she was asked to remove the union’s button, she was warned while favouring the Union’s notice on the notice board at work place, But Norma continued with her union objectives and kept on publicising the union, it’s cause and its functions to her peers, finally the management called the police chief to take her away to book her on disorderly conduct charges. Norma Rae did not leave calmly. She kicked, twisted, and screamed, and she had to be stuffed into the squad car and kept behind the bars for a night.

At her home, being a lady she was expected to cook food, wash clothes, look after the kids, and perform all other household activities, but since she was very much involved in the union activities she could not take out time for all these works, there was a conflict between her and her husband regarding the same on which she reacted aggressively showing her discontent that while she kept busy in work it was the responsibility of him to take care of such tasks. All these conflicts made her stronger to fight for her cause.

Social Identity Theory:

Social identity theory: leader is picked by followers or chosen to be supported by followers because s/he is most like them. (Source- Slides)

Norma Rae is a co-worker of the labours in the O.P Henley textile mills, this is an additional benefit which she enjoys to become a leader of them and for them, as stated in the social identity theory. There is a peer trust relationship between Norma and her followers, followers know that Norma is well aware of the situations and conditions prevalent in the working condition as she is one of them. This trust, respect and belief can be seen when she held up a sheet of cardboard with the word “UNION” marked on it in large letters, all her followers supported her and stopped working, they knew that what she was doing is for them and for their well being. In an earlier scene we see that Norma was offered a better designation and salary as that of peers, but when she realised the value of social identity she left the designation. Norma knew that without winning the confidence of her peers and without being one of them she would not be able to succeed to reach her destination. She knew the value of social identity.


Norma Rae though a great social transformer, does not depict the characteristics of a very great leader with a big following. In fact, Norma didn’t even have any followers as seen from a conventional view. Yet, she achieved and benefited many. She transformed the way labours were treated in the society, depicting a very interesting, unique and a subtle style of leadership. Norma Rae proved that passion and not position is where courage of a great leader to fulfil his vision, comes from. She along with Reuben, achieved her goal of establishing a union, yet facilitated the workers to believe that it was their effort and achievement. The following lines best describe the leadership style of Norma Rae:

“Go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. The best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will say we have done it ourselves.” -Lao Tzu

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Vision as a Strategy


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