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Psych on Screen
From Lone Voice to Leader


By Elaine Cassel

How does a transactional leader influence group behavior? A 1957 film that depicts a sole dissenting juror's role in leading a jury to fairly consider evidence in a murder case shows us.

In Twelve Angry Men (1957) Henry Fonda leads an impressive cast of jurors (played by Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall and Martin Balsam, to name a few) to put aside their prejudices and fairly consider the evidence against a young Hispanic man who faces the death penalty for murdering his father. How Fonda manages this illustrates important principles of leadership and minority influence. Fonda is the only juror who comes into the jury room ready to deliberate. The rest are ready to vote to convict so that they can get out of the stifling hot jury room and on to their evening activities.

Contrary to popular opinion that forepersons are jury leaders, Martin Balsam's passivity comports with research indicating that forepersons are chosen not for their leadership skills, but generally as the result of some random occurrence, such as the being the first person to speak or being the one who sits at the head of the table (Brehm, Kassin, and Fein, 1999). Balsam's foreman is one of the least influential members of the fictional jury. Fonda's unemotional argument and calm, self-effacing manner make him the de facto leader.

Transactional leadership is a two-way social exchange in which there is reciprocal and mutual influence between a leader and the group (Brehm, Kassin, and Fein, 1999). Fonda demonstrates transactional leadership traits such as setting clear group goals and assisting group members in achieving those goals. Fonda leads the jury that is ready to convict through a series of stages in which factions-those ready to acquit or convict, and those undecided-develop and then disintegrate. With each juror's decision to acquit, the balance shifts, and the defendant gains another ally.

As a majority to acquit develops (the vote to acquit or convict must be unanimous), Fonda recedes into the background and lets the other jurors lead the deliberative process. We see the group dynamics shift until Fonda's lone voice is joined by 10 others. In a scene grounded in psychodynamic theory, the motivation behind the lone holdout's passion to convict becomes apparent. He has displaced his anger towards his estranged son onto the defendant, a "no good, ungrateful kid" like his son.

Although a 1997 HBO remake of Twelve Angry Men starring the late George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon and Tony Danza received wide critical acclaim, those who have seen both generally agree that the remake added nothing to its progenitor. Some things never change. Though research and varying perspectives may produce new theories of leadership, the underlying principle is the same: A leader is someone who moves a group of people toward a common goal by means of social influence. It is hard to improve upon Fonda's depiction of how the right person can lead group members through individual metamorphoses that result in group transformation-one person at a time.

The 1957 version of Twelve Angry Men is available for rental in most video stores. The 1997 version may be purchased from video retailers.


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