This week our family Saturday evening movie was “12 Angry Men” – the 1957 black and white classic. It was the first time that any of us had seen it, and I really enjoyed it.
As I’ve thought about the film, I realise that there are some valuable leadership lessons that we can draw from it.
Perhaps the most obvious is having the courage of our convictions, especially in the face of pressure from others. The lead character – played by Henry Fonda – is under significant pressure form his fellow jurors, but he is determined to explore all of the evidence before he reaches a conclusion. He chooses principles over expediency.
Important decisions should be given time. In the movie, a boy’s life is in the balance – if found guilty, he will be executed. So Fonda’s character (called Davis) wants to talk things through, not to rush to a snap, potentially prejudiced decision.
Davis sees the importance of influencing others. He builds alliances – often by the force of his arguments, sometimes by listening to the others.
For me, one of the key leadership aspects that is displayed is the way that Davis repeatedly acknowledges his own uncertainty. He can’t be sure if the boy is guilty or not, he frequently concedes that he could be; but the evidence is patchy, they are dealing with incomplete information sets, with evidence that hasn’t been adequately tested by the defending lawyer. Davis demonstrates his principled approach, but not a dogmatic one.
He creates and manages tension. Davis creates uncertainty in the minds of his fellow jurors and allows them to follow their own thoughts. He knows that the tension is difficult – some want to make a quick decision and leave, others are torn.
He also knows that it’s essential that he maintains his composure, clarity and focus. Even in the midst of all of the emotions that fill the room, and as the actual temperature rises, Davis (largely) stays calm and measured.
Finally, names and titles aren’t the source of leadership. In the movie, the only time that any characters’ names are revealed is right at the end of the movie. The background and jobs held by each of the twelve men is only revealed slowly as the plot progresses. The jury foreman exercises little leadership – others assume different leadership roles as the drama unfolds.
A very good movie – another example of art imitating life?