Leading Without Authority

This is a repost of an article by Jim while finishing up his M.A. in Leadership.  It takes a look at what leading without authority looks like in the context of the classic movie, 12 Angry Men.  Read on, in Jim’s words…

As an opportunity to study and evaluate group dynamics and explore leadership from a different perspective I recommend viewing the classic film 12 Angry Men. Many leadership lessons can be learned from viewing films that explore the leadership episodes people encounter on a daily basis. Catching a glimpse of juror deliberations gives precisely this type of opportunity for us to learn something new about leadership.

The lesson or the question that we can ask with this film focuses on the issue of leading when you do not have authority to lead. Although this may sound counter intuitive, this type of leadership occurs every day, in our workplaces, churches and families. A big part of the role of leadership is to help people face their problems as opposed to only keeping focused on achieving a vision.

This type of unauthorized leadership changes whole societies for the greater good. Think Ghandi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King for large impact examples. For the everyday examples, think about the co-worker who consistently shines the light on management inconsistencies, the protester, the union organizer, the parent pushing the local school board for better opportunities for the children of the community.

Synopsis: As the film opens the jury of a murder trial is given its instructions to deliberate the evidence presented in trial and to decide on a verdict. Twelve strangers locked in a room known to each other only by their juror number, 1 through 12, must decide the fate of a young man accused of killing his father in a fit of rage. The initial vote of the jury is 11 Guilty and 1 vote Not Guilty.

The majority of the men in the room feel this is an open and shut case that should be decided in a few minutes. But the character played by Henry Fonda, juror number 8, “Just wants to talk about it first,” before condemning a man to be executed for the crime. [Must be a dominant Feeling type on his MBTI].

This desire to talk it out creates the conflict that drives the other members of the jury to more closely examine their own motives, thoughts, prejudices’ and beliefs. For the remainder of the film, through discussion, review of the evidence, timing of the sequence of events submitted as fact and actually playing out certain events for themselves, the jury is able to come to a unanimous decision – Not Guilty.

Analysis: Juror Number 8 was not sure and despite considerable peer pressure held to his conviction to talk through the evidence before jumping to a verdict. As an 11 to 1 underdog in his desire to talk through the process and the evidence, he was without a support base.

Heifetz (p 186) describes that a person who is leading without authority may have to construct, strengthen or sometimes broaden their base of informal leadership. As in the case of Juror number 8, his simple approach to seeking clarity in his convictions about the issue initially created the opportunity for one person to side with him simply because Juror 8 was strong enough to stand up to the rest of the jury.

So a base began to develop. As a leader developing in an environment where he had not authority over the others, he began to illuminate and shape the reasoning process for the others thereby shining the light on underlying pressures, prejudices, and biases. As Heifetz (p 207) would describe the situation, Juror 8, without any authority, began to modulate the provocation of the others in seeking responsive change.

“A leader without authority can spark debate, but cannot orchestrate it.” As this process began, also along with Heifetz description (p 208), Juror 8 became a lightning rod as the center of the discussion, debate and provocation.

Questions for Reflection:

How does a leader without authority to lead know in advance when they are about to go too far?

How should “authorized” leaders respond to “unauthorized” leaders when the provocation begins, heats up and takes on steam?

Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership Without Easy Answers, Harvard College, Belknap Press, 1994

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