Norma Rae- a Leadership Analysis

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Last updated: May 31, 2019

“If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. ” Abigail Adams (www. wisdomquotes.

com) The above stated lines very truly represent the spirit of Norma Rae and the power of women. The quotation highlights the two main points shown in the film; the strength and determination of women and the idea of equal representation for all.The film portrays the transformation of an oppressed woman, who was destined to be a follower, into a charismatic leader who bought about changes that benefited more than just a few. Norma Rae is based on the life of Crystal Lee Sutton. Crystal Lee Sutton, (formerly Crystal Lee Jordan) is an American union organizer and advocate who gained fame during the early 1970s. She was fired from her job at the J. P.

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Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina for trying to unionize its employees. She made $2. 65 an hour folding towels.The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union won the right to represent the workers at the plant on August 28, 1974. Jordan later became a paid organizer for the ACTWU.

(Source – Wikipedia. com). The Film The concept of “The Other” has always been an intriguing one. It deals with the issues related to the far-off, mysterious, different ones; perhaps one from the minority group. “The Other”, is a personification of the under-dog; a reflection of an unresolved mystery of a vastly discriminated against, seemingly alien sect which ought to be oppressed due to its timid, distant, less understood and submissive profile (Clemens et al, 2000).

And, speaking of our 1979 movie, Norma Rae’s protagonist, a dull, ordinary-looking, lost in the hum-drum life of a mill-worker, she appears to be destined to a lifetime of ‘despondent drudgery’ (Clemens et al, 2000). Norma Rae comes across as an ordinary worker who must follow the O. P.

Henley Textile Mill timings and just do her job without any questions asked. Her destiny appears to be one of a diligent slave, living life mechanically. Norma Rae (played by Sally Field) is a “slice of life” movie (Clemens et al, 2000).It is based on the real life incident of Crystal Lee Sutton who radically transformed into a rebel with a cause and 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 a strong will, determination and energy can surely move mountains.

It substantiates the bonding between a mentor and his protegee, the importance of such a symbiotic relationship and how the follower can become a leader too by synergizing bonds (Bass et al, 1994).It is a live commentary on the inherent leadership potential lying latent in all of us and how circumstances possess the capacity to change us into a grand phenomenon which we are generally used to applauding from the far-off sidelines (Crainer, 1996). An aspect of such a pro-worker movie which surely cannot be ignored is its symbolism and a prevalence of a terribly melancholic strain of music which sets the stage for a dull, brooding watching of an environment which is pretty low in energy and confidence, with no markings of any kind of a positive vibration or a victory in sight.

The film begins with the machine 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 living life, but simply surviving. This over-bearing scenario takes us back to the 1936 dark satire, Modern Times, where our little tramp, Charlie Chaplin enacting the role of a worker signals the harsh reality of workers being a replaceable part in the industrial set-up and the organization being the dominating entity.Workers are portrayed as being machines themselves making machines in unceasing eight hour shifts and trying to come to terms with this machine age. (Clemens et al, 2000) In such pathetic working conditions with short breaks in-between work, no windows, slave drivers, appalling sounds and a whimsical management system enters our lady, Norma Rae. To begin with, she is a ball of raw energy. She is a rebel without a cause, an anger-stricken, and directionless unharnessed youth of the age who fearlessly confronts the management.

The bosses try to tame her by offering a raise and buying her out. At first, she plays into their hands, but realizes a very important lesson of life that to find strength, one must be with the people; in unity lies the greatest potent power. She is street-smart enough to comprehend that having power within the group is far more valuable than just a position of power outside. In a way, this throws light upon the potency of the plebeians and their collective power.To balance out this compassion-authority equation of Norma and for a successful revolution to take place, in walks Reuben Warshofsky (played by Ron Leibman), an experienced outsider, an urban union leader who knows the laws and the legal system and just needs an insider to legitimize and expedite his goals from within.

Mr. Warshofsky does for the workers by bringing in Norma Rae what perhaps, the consultants A. T. Kearney did with the company insiders for Walmart (Clemens et al, 2000). The pushy outsider, Reuben works as the fulcrum on which Norma’s newly found identity exists.With his polishing, she slowly transforms into a confident individual with her full potential, waging a war with conviction and full-throttled energy. Interestingly enough, in this teacher-student relationship, “reverse-mentoring” (Bass et al, 1994) also happens.

The disciple or a bright protegee as in this case, guides her mentor too. An example in point would be when Norma asks Reuben to simplify the flier as it is too complicated for the workers to understand. This symbiotic conventional mentor-protegee bond develops into a fruitful partnership where these two recruit workers, spread awareness and overcome obstacles together.His authority and knowledge to deal with situations acts as a boon too, especially when he gets the notice rightly positioned on the notice-board.

Reuben, true to his namesake, Mentor from the Greek classic, Odyssey guides and proves to be an intellectual friend to Norma as Mentor is to Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. As the nineteenth century thinker, Thomas Carlyle very aptly stated in his study of leaders, On Heroes and Hero-Worship that – “Most humans are as kindling, waiting for the match to ignite them. ” (Clemens et al, 2000).Hence, this 1970s pro-worker movie laced with its moments of black humour and symbolism is not the story of “the other” being side-tracked.

On the contrary, it is a tale of successful, mutually beneficial mentoring which leads to a victorious union. It’s a case study of understanding how leadership skills can be developed and the undeniable importance of communication and being a people’s person. However, the origin of it all lies in appreciating one’s self-worth and rising against the unfavourable tide with determination and well-structured lanning (Pierce et al, 2008). It all boils down to strategic planning amidst adverse circumstances and making the latter in fact, the stepping stones. Norma Rae mirrors the greatest good of the greatest number doctrine of ethics. It is an inspirational movie which stirs one to action.

From a morose beginning, the movie traverses an extensive journey and leaves the audience with an inspiring encouragement to revolutionize one’s hostile environment into one of collective conquest. The Director’s Perspective The director has depicted three distinct leadership styles.The first being that of Norma Rae, which is of a leader being created, situational leadership and the fact that leadership is not gender specific (Jackson et al, 2008).

The second style being portrayed is that of Reuben, which is of a charismatic, transformational leader (Jackson et al, 2008). The third style is that of the management of O. P. Henley Textile Mill, which is totally autocratic, authoritarian and they treat the workers more like machines (Yeo, 2006). Alongside the director has presented a perfect illustration of the Mentor-Protegee relationship (Jackson et al, 2008) in the form of Norma and Reuben.

Analysing LeadershipThis movie depicts various perspectives of leadership and looks at leadership styles of the Protagonist (Norma Rae) and her Mentor (Reuben). The main leadership paradigms illustrated in the film are- -Leaders can be created or Leadership as a Process -Contingency Theory of Leadership and Situational Leadership -Transformational Leadership -Mentor-Protegee Relationship -Ethical Leadership -The Gender Perspective of Leadership Leaders Are Created The most important mark that Norma Rae makes is that leaders can be created (Jackson et al, 2008). It shatters the common myth that leaders are born and cannot be made (Grint, 2005).From the film it’s very clear that proper guidance and mentorship along with situational factors can ignite the flame of leadership, in an individual who has never demonstrated any leadership potential (Howell et al, 2006). Historically also it has proven that guidance and mentorship have resulted in the creation of great leaders. One such example lies in Indian History; Chanakya mentored Chandragupta Maurya, who went on to establish the great Mauryan Empire and is considered to be one of the best rulers Indian History has witnessed. A similar example is also seen in Greek History; wherein Aristotle trained Alexander (www.

wikipedia. com).In the words of Prof. Warren Bennis, “The most dangerous myth is that leaders are born-that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply have charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact the opposite is true. And the way we become leaders is by learning about leadership through life and job experiences, not university degrees.

… Leadership is nurtured with on-the-job education and role models. People learn to be leaders through difficult experiences and when they face adversity. They learn through the pain and agony of having to come up with hard answers.

Leadership doesn’t come from genes.It doesn’t come from reading or listening to lectures. It comes from the hard earned experience in the arena rather than watching from the balcony. ”(Zenger et al, 2003) Similar to the film, a typical example of leaders being created out of ordinary people is of U. S. Marines. Most of the recruits come from troubled home or are users of drugs etc. They’ve often not attended college.

Most of the usual parameters associated with success and leadership are absent. But the U. S. Marine training program converts them into amazing leaders. (Zenger et al, 2003) The movie also challenges the universal applicability of the Traits Theory of Leadership.Traits Theories differentiate between leaders and non leaders on the basis of personal qualities and traits (Robbins et al, 2007). The protagonist does not possess the traits or qualities typically associated with leadership.

Norma lacks the basic charisma that has conventionally been perceived to be the most important leadership quality (Robbins et al, 2007). Despite that, based on Reuben’s guidance, circumstantial conditions and her determination, Norma metamorphosized into a leader who managed to achieve for her followers (co-workers), something that was considered impossible.Situational Leadership Another concept very clearly demonstrated in the movie is of 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). In other words, there is no one 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). In Norma’s scenario it was her realisation of the gloomy situation the workers were in, that propelled her to take charge of the situation and lead them to form a union.

The concept or situational leadership is very clearly illustrated in the most powerful scene of the movie. After getting fired from her job in the mill, Norma scribbles the word Union on a piece of cardboard and holds it up in the middle of the mill. As a result of this action, for the first time all the workers come together and show solidarity towards their leader by switching off their machines and bringing the mill to a total halt. By holding up the word union Norma for the first time takes up the leadership role and manages to garner full support and participation of all the followers (i. . the mill workers). It’s the power of silence that pulls them together.

Without uttering a single word or displaying any oratory skills Ms. Rae converts all the workers into her followers, by arousing an eager want in those around her by portraying the idea from their perspective (Halpern et al, 2003). This incident also shatters a common myth that one has to be a good orator to garner a following and be a leader (Halpern et al, 2003). Transformational Leadership “Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it. Marian Anderson (www.

betterworld. net) This is primarily Reuben’s style of Leadership. 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). In the film it’s not just Norma who displays Leadership Traits.

Her Mentor Reuben has far greater Leadership abilities and his strength lies in the fact that he inspires other to come forward and realise their potential.He follows the principle of Leadership Development. Reuben knows exactly how to use the three processes of leadership development, i. e. , assessment, challenge and support (Howell et al, 2006). He makes people realise their strengths and weaknesses; challenges them to develop their capabilities and encourages them to move forward and take the lead. A transformational leader has to have a very good understanding of the psychology of his followers to inspirationally motivate them and intellectually stimulate them (Pierce et al, 2008).Reuben is an expert at Inspirational Motivation.

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 also heavily inspired by Reuben so she is also a Transformational Leader to a great extent. Ethical Leadership Ethical leadership considers not only the leader but also his followers, the situation that they face, the leader’s processes and skills, and the outcomes that result (Jackson et al, 2008).It’s concerned with knowing your core values and having the courage to live them in all parts of your life in service of the common good (Center for Ethical Leadership). This again is very much Reuben’s style of leading. He is very sure of his belief in justice for the workers and based on that he influences Norma and others to take the initiative and form a union.

Norma also fits into the role of being an ethical leader to the mill workers perfectly. The Gender Perspective “Over the centuries femininity has been stereotyped as dependent, submissive and conforming and hence women have been seen as lacking in leadership qualities….

The male bias is reflected in the false conception of leadership as mere command or control. As leadership comes properly to be seen as a process of leaders engaging and mobilising the human needs of followers, women will be more readily recognised as leaders and men will change their leadership styles. ” James MacGregor Burns (Heller, 1982) One of the most common myths about leadership is that it is gender specific and only men make good leaders (Heller, 1982). The male centred society has usually associated women with certain typical roles; such as taking care of the house, children etc.Leadership has always been related with men. This film attacks this mindset also. Norma’s husband complains to her that she’s only associated with the union work and is ignoring her household and kids.

This incident totally reflects on his mind set that women should primarily take care of the house. But the truth is that women are capable of multi tasking and doing far more than men. Leadership is beyond gender and in fact women make better leaders.

Women have certain characteristics that give them an edge over men in being leaders, like- empathy, and a caring attitude (Heller, 1982).Norma proves it to all that women can work, earn, and take care of the house as well as lead. Traditionally women have not been perceived as leaders and were never allowed to lead. Hence another mark that Norma Rae makes is that women who were not associated with leadership can be taught and developed to be good leaders. Conclusion Norma Rae does not depict the existence of a great leader or someone who had a big following. In fact, Norma didn’t even have any followers as seen from a conventional view. Yet, she achieved and benefited many; depicting a very interesting, different and a subtle style of leadership.She along with Reuben, achieved her goal of establishing a union, yet allowed the workers to believe that it was their effort and their achievement.

The following lines sum up the leadership of Norma Rae very aptly. “A leader is best when people barely know he/she exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him/her, worse when they despise him/her..

.. But of a good leader who talks little when his/her work is done, his/her aim fulfilled, they will say, We did it ourselves. ” Lao Tzu (Pierce et al, 2008) References Bass, B. M. (1990), Bass ; Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research & Mangerial Applications.

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