Leadership Patterns In Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society
The movie “Dead Poets Society” is set in the United States in 1959, at the traditional Welton Academy, a university that is very strict and whose students come from the upper class.
To start with Mr. Nolan, the headmaster represents the traditional, authoritarian leader. What he says in the movie revolves around the core values of tradition, honour, discipline and excellence, which are the values of the university itself. His speeches focus on the prestige of the school and the responsibilities that come with being a student at Welton Academy.
The ceremony he leads at the beginning of the year is conventional and leaves no room for imagination. Students are not given freedom. They maintain their place in the room and are not given any chance to say anything. Mr. Nolan is the type of leader who does not involve his students or care for anything beyond the school curriculum that might be of interest to the boys. He makes no comments regarding Neil’s (a student) passion for acting, apparently ignoring the real cause of Neil’s later suicide, and has no awareness of Todd’s own emotional conflict when he decidedly tells him to live up to his brother’s status.1
Thus, Mr. Nolan puts a lot of pressure on his students and invokes the past in an attempt to encourage the students to live up to the tradition: “You have some big shoes to fill. Your brother was one of our finest,” he tells Todd. In doing this, he again leaves no room for change, or for the growth of the students as free individuals with unique personalities.
Authority is one of the key concepts of his leadership methods. Mr. Nolan is a rigid figure, and has no sense of humour, punishing Charlie Dalton for his joke. Moreover, he resorts to the traditional method in doing so: he beats him with a paddle. When the article that Charlie writes for the school journal comes out, Mr. Nolan’s sole purpose is to find the guilty student, thus the focus is on the student who has undermined his authority. His speech is not about justice being done, but about the guilty person being found by him.
After Neil’s suicide, Mr. Nolan’s authority is again in danger of being subverted. He tries to save his reputation by threatening to find the guilty person, and in the end he finds a scapegoat in Mr. Keating.
Mr. Nolan falls into the category of “autocratic leadership”, according to Kurt Lewin’s approach, described in Kendra Cherry’s article. This style implies that the leader takes the decisions and the members of the group (in this case, the students) are not given any freedom. According to Daniel Goleman, Mr. Nolan’s style is “coercive”, and he argues that the main fallacy with this style is that it “undermines one of the leader’s prime tools—motivating people” (2000). As a result, the students’ attitude towards Mr. Nolan is of refusal to cooperate, unless they are threatened. In the end, the students are forced to sign a document against Mr. Keating’s teaching methods, but only when they risk being expelled. However, they refuse to collaborate when there is no danger of being punished. When Mr. Nolan asks them to give the name of the students who wrote the article in the school journal, they keep the secret and eventually Charlie gives himself away.
On the other hand, John Keating, a recently appointed English professor is everything that Mr. Nolan is not. He has charisma, humour and inspires his students. Against the conservative background of the university, professor John Keating becomes one of the most remarkable figures at Welton. His non-traditional teaching methods, together with his passion, his charismatic personality and the genuine care for his students, make him stand out from the rest of the members of the school committee, and thus he becomes a favourite amongst the students, the leader of a group of students whom he does not control, but inspire. Mr. Keating’s opponent is Mr. Nolan, the headmaster, who represents precisely what Mr. Keating does not: authority and tradition. John Keating and Mr. Nolan represent two different types of leaders with different teaching methods and core values.
Keating is a leader in the sense that he brings his students together. He does this by having a vision and by creating values that go hand in hand with his vision. He manages to keep the group together and focused. Even when one of the students writes a bad poem, he does not assume a superior attitude: “We’re not laughing at you; we’re laughing near you,” he tells the student. The best scene in the movie for exemplifying togetherness is perhaps the moment when the boys find out about the “Dead Poets Society” group meetings that Mr. Keating used to organize when he was younger and they decide to do the same.
Mr. Keating is a visionary. He has a clear vision, which he infuses into his students. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world,” the professor tells his students. This, together with “carpe diem” i.e. seize the day, are his mottos, and become the mottos of his students as well. Under his influence and guidance, Neil follows his passion for acting and is supported in taking up his first role in a play. Knox decides to make a move and call Chris, the girl he fancies. He convinces even the shy Todd to overcome his fear of speaking in public.
John Keating is also a value creator. He stands for making the most out of life, taking risks and not missing whatever opportunities life throws in one’s way. Focusing on a few key values makes the vision clear and well-defined: “If you make it your goal to be a value creator, then it becomes an instinct […] it’s clarifying, and if you can focus on that, it is the way to win”. This acts as a shortcut to the students’ own personalities. Every student feels he can identify himself with Mr. Keating, and this strengthens the team spirit in the group and the group dynamics.
He establishes his authority by having the students call him “captain” right from the beginning, and takes this word from Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”. Therefore, he makes use of a historical reference in order to gain prestige.
There are some other creative methods he uses in order to gain the students’ respect and a certain amount of power over them. When he enters the class for the first time, there is an air of composure in his attitude, which the students do not expect. He enters the class while whistling and asks the students to leave the class and follow him. Then he tells them that he had been a student of “Hellton” as well, thus establishing a democratic relationship of equality with his students — he is one of them, and he calls “Welton” the same way as the students do in private. Afterwards, he shows them photos of Welton graduate students that are no longer alive, encouraging the students to “seize the day”: “You see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close… you can hear them whisper their legacy to you.” Then he invites the students to come closer to the photos and whispers in their ears “carpe diem”. He ends the class with telling the students to “make their lives extraordinary”.
John Keating’s discourse often includes the future; he invites the boys to think about what they could be. However, Mr McAllister warns him against his methods: “You take a big risk by encouraging them to become artists”. Neil takes his acting career too seriously and suffers deeply when he realises that change cannot come immediately. In the end, his leadership style has its drawbacks, just like any other style.
Every class of Mr. Keating’s becomes a show he stages. He creates “compelling spectacles” with every class he holds. During the next class, he tells his students to read the definition of poetry from their books, and then, unpredictably, tells them his opinion about it and uses humour to fully make his point and tells the boys to rip out the page from the book, involving them in the show. “Gentlemen, tell you what. Don’t just tear out that page. Tear out the entire introduction,” he adds, creating an even more dramatic spectacle.
In another scene, he invites the students to gather round him and gives them his meaning of poetry: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race… poetry, beauty, romance love — these are what we stay alive for.” Then he gives them his definition of the meaning of life: “That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse”. By this, he shifts the focus from him to the students and appeals to their own visions of the future.
Yet another scene shows that Mr. Keating climbs on his desk and asks the boys why he does this. “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way,” is his answer. By doing so, he also asserts his authority in a less obvious way. However, later on he invites his students to do the same, therefore equality is once again established between the professor and the students. This is also another example of how he stages his own play during his classes and how everybody else gets to have a part in the play.
One of the most important concepts in discussing leadership is emotional intelligence, which represents “the abilities to recognize and regulate emotions in ourselves and in others” (Goleman 2001, 2). Mr. Keating shows “intrapersonal intelligence”, the ability to manage oneself. He knows he wants to teach. After seeing a photo of Mr. Keating’s wife, Neil asks the professor how he stands being away from her. Mr. Keating’s answer shows that he can manage himself and that he knows what he wants: “Because I love teaching. I don’t want to be anywhere else”. Mr. Keating is also honest, and takes responsibility for his actions. He accepts leaving Welton Academy without protesting.
Other traits described by Goleman that can be applied are the ability to adapt to new situations — the audience can infer that Mr. Keating has adapted himself easily to the new working medium at Welton Academy. During classes, he is an innovator and a flexible professor. He replies to his students with funny remarks that are made up on the spur of the moment. When Charlie refuses to walk in an exercise that was meant to demonstrate the “dangers of conformity”, Mr. Keating shows flexibility: “Thank you, Mr. Dalton. Just illustrated the point. Swim against the stream”.
Mr. Keating’s personality makes him a charismatic leader. He uses his humour to mobilize his students. He also chooses to make witty and humorous remarks instead of criticizing his students in a direct manner: “Congratulations, Mr Hopkins. Yours is the first poem to ever have a negative score on the Pritchard scale”.
Mr. Keating is driven by motivation and commitment. He continuously tries to bring out the most of his students. He supports Neil with his acting career, proving that he genuinely cares for his students. He sticks to his non-traditional methods despite being warned by other members of the school committee and despite the risk of being fired.
In terms of what Garner names “interpersonal competence” (qtd. in Goleman 2001, 2), Mr. Keating shows empathy towards his students. He understands Todd’s fear of speaking in public and pushes him beyond his fear. He is aware of the area where his students need to develop and helps Neil pursue his dream.
As far as social skills are concerned, Keeting is a persuader and communicates effectively, convincing his students to work with him; he inspires and guides the boys, initiates change and cooperates with the students, creating a group that is bound together by common values and goals.
Mr. Keating’s style is mainly “authoritative” (Goleman 2004) and enters the scene at a time when change was needed. Goleman argues that this style works best when “changes require a new vision” (2004). Mr Keating thus succeeds in mobilizing his students and in convincing them to follow him. By the middle of the movie, most students take the motto “seize the day” seriously. However, he shows traits of other leadership styles as well. He creates harmony within the group and shows empathy towards his students, thus borrowing elements from the “affiliative” style. He places the emphasis on teamwork and consensus, as would a “democratic” leader do, and urges his students to better themselves, thus assuming a “coaching” style. Therefore, his style contains includes elements of all the styles that, according to Goleman, lead to positive results.
Moreover, Mr. Keating is cautious and while he preaches change, he invites his students to think twice before making a bold move: “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for”. At the same time, he knows when to be daring and when to be wary. He knows that he cannot do anything that could make him remain a professor at Welton Academy and accepts his dismissal without protesting. There is also an air of calmness and composure even when Mr. Nolan or other persons are criticizing his methods.
In conclusion, Mr. Keating’s leadership style shows more flexibility and is more appealing, given the context and the social background of the students. He also shows strong emotional intelligence skills that enable him to attune to the students’ needs easily. His personality and his power to empathize with the students help him become an influential leader.
- Dead Poets Society. Dir. Peter Weir. Perf. Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles. 1989. Film.
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