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Leadership in the Movies: Applying a Trait-Based Model

Brooke J. Cannon, Ph.D.

(From December 2007 issue of the Pennsylvania Psychologist Quarterly.)


When it comes to leadership, most of us are consistent with Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote about pornography – it is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it.  The January 2007 issue of the American Psychologist tackled the leadership definition challenge with traits (Zaccaro, 2007), situations (Vroom & Jago, 2007), and systems (Sternberg, 2007) all being offered as leadership variables.  Here the first of these models, a trait-based perspective, is applied to a classic film, one rated the 13th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database (2007) website.


The 1957 film 12 Angry Men is a goldmine of psychological material with an impressive cast, including Henry Fonda, John Fiedler (of Mr. Peterson fame from the original Bob Newhart Show), and a quite young Jack Klugman.  This drama follows the jury deliberation of a homicide case involving a Hispanic teenager in New York City.  The jurors are not known by name, but by number.  Fonda, Juror #8, is an architect who at first is reserved, detached from the others, soft-spoken.  He is the sole juror to vote not-guilty in the first round of voting.  The other 11 then set out to convince him that he is wrong, and to do it quickly.  The room is hot, one juror has tickets to the ballgame that night, another has a terrible cold; the sentiment among most of the others is let’s be done with it and get out of here.


Applying Zaccaro, Kemp, and Bader’s model of leader attributes and leader performance (as cited in Zaccaro, 2007) to the Fonda character, demonstrated first are what would be considered distal attributes, those enduring traits that are at play in any situation.  These include personality, cognitive abilities, and motives/values.  Fonda’s personality is adaptable, likeable, open to the opinions of others.  He does not emphatically state that the verdict should be not guilty; instead, he frequently demonstrates his uncertainty:  “I don’t know; it’s possible.” 


He clearly is bright and logical, traits not lost on the other jurors:  “You’re a pretty smart fella, aren’t ya!”  His method of introducing doubt about the uniqueness of the murder weapon demonstrates creativity, as well as his calculating the time it took for a witness to reach the door of the apartment.


Perhaps the most important distal leadership trait at play in this film is Fonda’s motivation for socialized power, where the goal is to build up others to allow them to succeed.  He does not seek status or ego enhancement, as would be seen in a leader with a personalized power orientation.  Rather, Fonda works to encourage the others to think rationally, to put aside their personal biases and selfish motivations, and to take seriously their responsibility as jurors.  He strives for group success.


The Zaccaro et al. leadership model also includes the exhibition of proximal attributes.  These traits are omnipresent in the individual, but only exhibited when the situation dictates, including expertise/tacit knowledge, problem-solving skills, and social appraisal skills. 


At first, Fonda’s specific expertise as an architect may not seem relevant.  Throughout, though, he demonstrates his ability to think creatively, to have cognitive flexibility.  Repeatedly he offers alternate hypotheses.  He can visualize space, such as imagining the view out an eyewitness’s window.  Just as an architect might mentally walk through and around a blueprint, Fonda views the evidence from different angles, juxtaposing witness testimony, considering the physics involved in the angle of the stab wound. 


Fonda also models problem-solving skills.  For some jurors, his logic and abstract reasoning are enough to lead to opinion change.  Others, perhaps not having reached the formal operational stage of cognitive development, have to reason on a more concrete level, such as Juror #5.  Fonda asks him, “Suppose you were the man on trial?” and he replies, “I’m not used to supposing.  I’m a working man, my boss does the supposing.”  Through Socratic questioning, though, Fonda is able to lead him and others to analyze the evidence in a concrete manner and to then reach informed conclusions, seemingly through their own efforts. As time passes, other jurors adopt his strategies, employing these same problem-solving methods.


Just as Fonda’s need for socialized power is the most prominent distal leadership trait in the film, his social appraisal skill is his strongest proximal trait.  Much like a boxer circling his opponent in the first round, Fonda stays away from the others upon first entering the deliberation room, letting them talk, perhaps appraising each man and his particular traits.  After the initial vote, when he is alone 11-1, each juror in turn tries to convince him that he is wrong.  He counters each argument with facts, logic.  He watches how the jurors interact with one another, how they respond to what is said.  Indeed, he has such confidence in his appraisal skills that he calls for another vote:  “You 11 men vote again, this time by secret written ballot.  I won’t vote.  If you all vote guilty, I will go along with you and we take the verdict to the judge.  If anyone votes not guilty, we stay here and work it out.”  As he no doubt anticipated, one juror switches his vote.  One by one, Fonda brings jurors over to his side.  He observes, for example, how meek Juror #2 is being bullied by another.  How his opinions are not valued.  When Juror #2 offers others a cough drop and no one accepts, Fonda readily asks for one.  Thereafter, Juror #2 stays by his side.  He also reads the biases in other jurors, but only once is he overt in his challenging.  Fonda leads each of these jurors to the point where his own words incriminate himself, illustrate his biases, and, fortunately, result in his “doing the right thing.”


In summary, 12 Angry Men is a terrific film.  It can be viewed as an illustration of leadership, as an exploration of personal bias and prejudice, and as a film classic which is as relevant and enjoyable today as it was 50 years ago.



Internet Movie Database (2007).  Top 250 movies as voted by our users.  Retrieved October 13, 2007, from the Internet Movie Database Web Site:

Sternberg, R. (2007).  A systems model of leadership.  American Psychologist62, 34-42.

Vroom, V. H., & Jago, A. G. (2007).  The role of the situation in leadership.  American Psychologist62, 17-24.

Zaccaro, S. J. (2007).  Trait-based perspectives of leadership.  American Psychologist62, 6-16.