Leadership Development And Norma Rae

An Interactive Successful leader, the Norma Rae (Portrayed by Sally Field) and this classic movie is actually based on the true life of Crystal lee Sutton formerly known as Crystal Lee Jordan who was an employee at J.P Stevens Plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina before being fired in an attempt unionize the employees of the factory.

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Crystal lee Sutton, who was an American advocate and union organizer, made $2.65 an hour and like Norma Rae had struggled for a safe, fair, working environment for all.


Norma Rae, is a classic example of courage and determination of a strong and motivated women who beyond being small, Un-certain and Un-sophisticated has demonstrated an exceptional leadership quality which facilitated as an instrument to eradicate the common suffering prevalent in her community.

It’s a brave act of a strong woman against discrimination, sexism and racism. It’s a fight for the human rights to live in a fair working environment.

Movie has confirmed the truth again that one doesn’t needs to be better than the people whom they lead as Norma Rae(Sally Field) exhibits the most robust act of wordless suasion further acknowledging that in leadership, Oratory isn’t the whole thing.

A radical transformation of a destined follower benefitting more than just a few is the storyline behind Norma Rae.

As the study done by Calliper also states that:

“Women leaders are more assertive and persuasive, have a stronger need to get things done and are more willing to take risks than male leaders….Women leaders were also found to be more empathetic and flexible, as well as stronger in interpersonal skills than their male counterparts….enabl[ing] them to read situations accurately and take information in from all sides….These women leaders are able to bring others around to their point of view….because they genuinely understand and care about where others are coming from….so that the people they are leading feel more understood, supported and valued”

Norma Rae as a protegee and Rueben being her mentor have exhibited an effective leadership with slightly different leadership styles which further benefitted them to sell their vision to others and guides others for a better tomorrow.

In the Movie, Norma Rae, shares the same social identity (Hogg et al, 2001) as she is one of them who have worked within the same mill with her whole family throughout their lives.

Anxious still firm, she never denies her past and engages in battle passionately for what she believed was indispensable for the community. It’s the Rueben efforts that catalyses Norma from a being a follower to a rebel for a common cause and suffering.

Norma Rae demonstrates a more intuitive, task oriented, shared power approach towards leadership and an eagerness to encompass and seek conciliation as suggested by studies about women managers (Fox & Shuhmann, 1999; Rosener, 1995; Lunneborg, 1990; Billing and Alvesson, 1994; Gilligan, 1982: Guy, 1992).

The Film

In the Movie, Norma Rae the protagonist, leads her people towards a better livelihood from a ‘despondent drudgery’ (Clemens et al, 2000) struggling with all who with money and rights tried to trample the basic human rights.

O.P Henley Mill, where she worked as a worker provided her the real platform to explore her true potential. Norma Rae an un-educated, poor worker who finally articulates the pain, and sufferings of all the co workers without any domination but with the power of a unionised effort.

As said by Dr. Musimbi kanyaro also that in today’s world:

“Domination as a leadership style is becoming less and less popular. There is a new growing appreciation of…those traits that women use to keep families together and to organize volunteers to unite and make change in the shared life of communities. These newly admired leadership qualities of shared leadership; nurturance and doing good for others are today not only sought after but also indeed needed to make a difference in the world….A feminine way of leading includes helping the world to understand and be principled about values that really matter.”

Similarly Norma Rae utilizes the power of shared leadership, nurturance and participative leadership to sell the vision and value behind working in a safe, fair environment being equal for everyone everywhere.

It was the exuberant effort of her mentor Reuben Warshawsky , an American labor Union Organiser (Played by Ron Liebman) who sparked the flame inside the passive follower Norma Rae’s heart, radically transforming her from a follower to rebel with a cause.

According to a study of Calliper also it states, that women leaders like Norma Rae learns from adversity and carry on with an “I’ll show you “attitude.

Norma Rae has demonstrated the fact that even being denigrated due to the dicey sexual past and bad temper she would never deny who she is and even won’t let it matter also. She continued the struggle passionately and won the allegiance of the downtrodden workers while remaining as one of them.

As power is not based on title or status; it comes from connecting with people and standing up for what you believe in (Goleman et al, 2002), Norma Rae’s has also demonstrated the same when she stood up after scrawling the word union on a board, holding her declaration for almost three minutes and as a result, the workers switched off their machines. She stood scared but firm to elucidate the apathy of her and her co-workers.

As been described by John Mac Gregory Burns observation:

The key distinctive role of the leadership at the outset is that leaders take the initiative. They address their creative insights to potential followers, seize their attention, and spark further interaction. The first act is decisive because it breaks up a static situation and establishes a relationship. It is in every sense, a creative act. (2003:172)

Norma Rae who took the initiative of unionisation, and were able to establish the connection became a vital part in the formation of the victorious union.

According to (Paglis and Green, 2002) also leaders with high Self Efficacy takes more initiatives to solve the problems and introduce the desirable changes, So Norma Rae shares an high self efficacy to bring substantial changes in system.

In the movie Reuben, who knew the legal system and laws, guides Norma as a mentor to take matured and rightful strong decisions.

As Gini, A. (1998) explains about the use of power, Norma Rae has pushed the common goal of Unionisation even without any official authority such that through her actions and diligence she persuaded, orchestrated, guided, directed and mobilised her co-workers. Leaders like Norma Rae are confident in the ability to influence people and are more likely to use persuasion rather than coercive or manipulative influence tactics (Goodstadt & Hjelle, 1973).

As a leader, Norma Rae has interacted in non-coercive ways to decide what changes they wanted to make. It was a multi-directional influence relationship (Rost-1991) between the Norma and its co followers with a mutual objective to accomplish a real change.

After being polished and waging a war with full throttle energy Norma shared a teacher-student relationship with Reuben where “reverse mentoring” (Bass et al, 1994) also cultivated. It was cultivated further into peer relationship, where mentor also being guided by protegee -In the movie also it was depicted when Norma advises Rueben, that the flyer was too complicated and needed more simplification.

In the whole movie Rueben, an expertise and an experienced leader was able to organize the zeal inside the Norma Rae to overcome the obstacles together.

Rueben has also used the authority and knowledge to individually deal with some difficult situations in the movie for example, when he gets the notice rightly positioned on the notice board during the official visit within the factory.

In the end Norma Rae, finally confronts the management more strongly to amputate the whimsical management system as she herself being victimized when her father dies due to pathetic working conditions.

One amongst the 800 mill workers she dares and raises her voice to fight for a common cause.

The Director perspective

The director has demonstrated three distinct leadership styles within the movie where Norma Rae portrays as a Transformational leader with social identity theory and participative leadership style. She demonstrates Situational leadership corroborating the fact that leaders are made not born and leadership is not gender specific.

The second style being portrayed by Rueben is of Authentic-Ethical, and of a charismatic Transformational leader, having mentor-protegee relationship with Norma Rae mentoring her, the democratic style of leadership.

The third style is of the management of O.P.Henley Textile Mill, being totally autocratic, authoritarian style of leadership.

Analysing leadership

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
Authentic Ethical Leadership
The Gender Perspective of leadership
Social identity theory of leadership

Leadership can be created or leadership as a process:

“A strong theme across disciplines is to gain better understanding of what constitutes ‘effective’ leadership and which factors have an influence on leadership performance”(Singh 2008)

It was the confidence, Integrity, Connection, Resilience and the aspiration which made Norma Rae an overall effective leader. She was a made leader who gathered the courage and made the most effective use by synergising the team work for a purposeful action.

“Gather the courage and understanding to confront the competitive -independent milieus of most organisations; work with employees so that they are convinced that teamwork is to their advantage; and put teamwork to work to achieve synergy up and down and across the organisation.”(Tjosvold and Tjosovold 1991)

Norma Rae as a movie opposes the applicability of trait leadership also. As under the tutelage of Rueben’s, Norma even without the charismatic power which is perceived to be an important aspect of leadership achieves the impossible even for her also.

It is one of the contradictions under which she lived till the time Rueben’s became his mentor and the relationship converted into mentor-protegee relationship.

Norma marshalled (Bennis and Nanus, 1997) the skills under the tutelage of Rueben.

Norma Rae with the cognitive ability (Bruce Avolio, 2005:25) even, after being rejected from the pastor, conducted meeting at her home, facing the conflict with Sonny also.

Even after facing the conflicts both from the work and even from the family she was able to trudge through the path successfully and won her followers what they deserved.

Even after being confronted hard by the company (work-conflict) she was able to stand as strong, as a powerful woman who conveyed the vision to everyone. She was able to win the hearts of the followers as she had the same pain.

Contingency Theory of leadership and Situational Leadership

As Bennis suggested that:

“aˆ¦more leaders have been made by accident, circumstances, and sheer will then have been made by all the leadership courses.”

Leadership and the leadership style is subjected to situations and circumstances (Howell et al, 2006) as shown in the movie also where Norma is completely being transformed and she fights for workers altogether.

It’s the way she exhibited situational leadership to motivate other workers when she holds the piece of cardboard with the word union written on it. This further formulated the worker to understand the real depth behind that word and they joined together by switching off their machines.

Norma took the responsibility to integrate them through a single powerful word with deep silence and innocent eyes thriving to get them what they actually deserved.

All the workers got turned into the followers as being aroused by eager and wants’, by portraying the single idea from their perspective (Halpern et al, 2003)

Transformational leadership

Enthusiasm, Energy, Engagement, Sharing Power and information and encouraging participation are key skills or traits being present in a transformational leader.

As said by Roserner (1990), a ‘transformational’ leader is one who can transform and is able to motivate subordinates to transform their own self interest into the interest of the group through concern for a broader goal.

Norma as a transformational leader had a very good understanding of the psychology of his followers to inspirationally motivate them and intellectually stimulate them. (Pierce et al, 2008).

Norma Rae being personally identified as one of them was able to encourage the followers and motivated them to lend themselves for a common cause.

Vinnicombe and Singh (2002) also described a women management and communication style as being based on personal respect, mutual trust, and regard for the contribution that each team member can bring, and the development of the individual and diverse talent.

Rueben, being a charismatic transformational leader, told the story about his grandfather and unions to create a vision and demonstrate the values of working as a team and how a unified team is like a family.

He knew that transformational leadership is a multi-level construct and type of individualised relationship that a leader establishes with followers which emerges within team members also.

Even as described in transformational theories that emotional processes being as important as rational processes it signifies symbolic action and Instrumental behaviour. Rueben also told Norma Rae to leave when she behaves rudely and counsels her to be diplomatic. Rueben displays a very high emotional intelligence in situations.

Even ( Avolio and Bass-1995) argued that transformational leadership is a multi-level construct and it’s the type of individualised relationship that a leader establishes with followers which emerges within team members also.

High levels of Emotional Intelligence as said by (Goleman-1998) being the most important for effective leaders as it provides them the ability to adapt themselves to the different situations especially crisis.

Authentic-Ethical leadership

Gardener also has stated about authentic leadership and authentic leaders such as

“Genuine leaders are the ones who lead by example in fostering healthy ethical climates characterised by transparency, trust, integrity, and high moral standards. Such leaders can be called as authentic leaders who are not only true to themselves, but they lead also lead others by helping them to achieve authenticity also” (Gardener et al. 2005:344)

Rueben also exhibits authentic ethical leadership which is related to values and commitment for self development of the team members.

As said:

“Ethical Leadership is also related to leader personality traits and needs”
(Brown & Trevino, 2006b; O’Connor Mumford, Clifton, Gessner , & Connelly , 1995).

Rueben has demonstrated all aspects of an effective leader with high level of conscientiousness, High Emotional maturity, Low nuerotocism, Low narcissism and high internal locus of control. Even Norma also shares strong internal locus of control as she also believes that lives are determined more by our own actions than by chance or Uncontrollable forces ,which is further groomed with Rueben motivation.

According to Bass and Steidlmeier (1999), there is disparity between authentic transformational leader and the Pseudo Transformational leadership. Authentic leadership is a lot more than performing in a transformational way. The authentic transformational leaders are more based on their moral and virtuous foundations.

The Gender Perspective of leadership

As the meta analysis done by Eagly,Johannesen-Schmidt & Van Engen ,(2003) it explains that women uses slightly more transformational leadership behaviour than men which makes them more renowned among the followers.

Norma demonstrated courage as well as individualised consideration for everyone as she’s used to remember the names of people in the movie which included supportive behaviour as well as the efforts to develop subordinates skill and confidence.

Acc to Heller (1982) also there is a common myth that leadership is gender specific and only men make good leaders. Even in the movie Sonny complains to Norma about her casual behaviour towards family and paying more attention towards her union work. This incident also reflects that women are supposed to be taking care of household work only.

This mindset is completely condemned by Norma and she proves that leadership is beyond gender and in fact women have certain characteristic that awards them the edge over men in being the leaders, like -empathy, and a caring attitude (Heller, 1982).

Norma exhibits a classic example of an made leader and marks that women’s posses the potential to become an outstanding leaders than men.

Social Identity theory of leadership

Norma Rae closely represents the group characteristics as well as aspiration, Norms and values of the group as she’s one of them. She creates a social identity (Hogg ,2001) within the group.

Norma Rae works closely with the followers and transforms them. Norma as depicted in the movie also very creative in expressing her beliefs for social development particularly when she holds that play card of Union in her hands.

As supposed by (Reicher and Haslam, in press-b) that both leader and followers are active interpreter of social world. In Norma Rae also both Norma and the followers struggles for creating an equal world for all. It allows them to create their own world and rather than the one made by others.

Such strategies are most common when there is Undemocratic and dictatorial regimes( Reicher & Hopkins ,2003; Koonz, 2003: Overy ,2004) which is being followed by O.P Henley management.


Norma Rae has demonstrated the real potential of the women’s and portrayed the real life of Crystal Lee Sutton. Like Norma Rae all the women do posses the ability to become effective leaders.

Norma had portrayed a very distinct and extra-ordinary style of leadership with the help of his mentor Rueben. She achieved the goal of Unionisation and got her people what they actually deserved.

Stodgill (1948, p. 64) also said that:

“A person does not become a leader by virtue of the possession of some combination of traits….the pattern of personal characteristics of the leader must bear some relevant relationship to the characteristics ,activities, and goals of the followers.”