Essay: Leadership Film Project: Dead Poets Society )

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Leadership film project: Dead Poets Society (1989)

"Carpe Diem, boys! Seize the day! Make your lives extraordinary." The image of Robin William's teacher in the film Dead Poets Society (1989) has become an iconic representation of what a good teacher should resemble: Williams embodies a teacher who inspires a love of poetry in his students, and also encourages his students to question conformist social norms. It might be tempting to view the English literature prep school instructor as a kind of anti-leader, an endorser of anarchy rather than an individual who takes charge of his student's lives and shapes them in a mindful fashion. However, Williams as John Keating (obviously the namesake of the Romantic poet John Keats) is just as determined to affect the lives of his students as the stultifying instructors and administrators at Vermont's elite Welton Academy. Keating begins the film a charismatic teacher, and ends the film a transformative leader, a teacher who has truly 'made a difference.' Unlike the school's principal, who uses dictatorial and authoritarian methods of leadership, Williams leads by challenging rather than endorsing conventions: he tries to speak the boys' adolescent language rather than talks down to them. Yet in his own way, in his beliefs about art, truth, beauty, and the meaning of life, Keating is just as secure in his convictions as the school's headmaster. Because of his method of leadership, Keating makes students want to emulate rather than resist him.

The plot of the film is simple: Welton Academy hires a new English teacher, John Keating, presumably because Keating is a former graduate of the school. However, Keating is a highly unconventional teacher, in contrast to Welton's other instructors. Keating stands on a desk the first day of class, rips out pages from the boys' textbook that explains how to graph the greatness of a poem in a clinical and mathematical fashion, and encourages the boys to appreciate poetry in a visceral manner. In doing so, he gives the boys important advice about life as well as literature. Small insurrections to the Welton code are spawned through his indirect influence: the boys, inspired by Keating's example as a student at Welton, create a nighttime Dead Poet's Society, where they read the great poetry of writers of the past, and smuggle girls into the woods around the school. However, when one of the boys, Neil Perry, decides to pursue his passion for acting, the boy's father is incensed. When the boy commits suicide as a result of the conflict he experiences with his father, the school blames Keating. Although Keating loses his job, the film ends with the boys standing on their desks in solidarity, saluting Keating as their Whitman-esque 'Captain.'

In his leadership style, Keating is clearly charismatic from the first scene of the film. By virtue of his personal example, he makes the boys want to be like him. It is interesting that, to become 'nonconformists,' the boys actually 'conform' to the model created by Keating. The Dead Poet's Society is based upon the society Keating helped create as a student, and even takes its name from his example. "Keating makes poetry attractive to these boys by presenting it as an age-old seduction technique. (Well, the impulses behind Shakespeare's sonnets weren't all chaste.) Naturally, the younger generation chooses to emulate their idol" (Emerson 2010).

The boys are inspired by Keating because of the personal interest he takes in their lives as well as his rebellious image. During the first day of class, Keating shows them pictures of prep school 'old boys' and notes that these young men are now food for worms: as all human beings will eventually meet with death, Keating suggests, it is essential that individuals live their lives to the fullest. Keating shows that he is concerned about the boys on a personal level, not simply that they write papers, pass exams, or even get into good colleges. "It is interesting to watch a Charismatic Leader 'working the room' as they move from person to person. They pay [so] much attention to the person they are talking to at any one moment, making that person feel like they are, for that time, the most important person in the world" (Straker 2010). Keating, although he clearly is beloved by some boys more than others, does not play 'favorites' and always has a kind word, even for some of the more 'dorky' boys in the classroom, like the unfortunately named Mr. Pitts.

The charisma of Keating is evident in his teaching approach, which is highly theatrical and interactive. Keating stands on desks, prowls the room like a stand-up comedian (undeniably one of the reasons director Peter Weir selected Williams for the role). The fact that the rest of the school is so conservative makes Keating's actions seem even more radical and daring. "Charismatic Leaders…may engender trust through visible self-sacrifice and taking personal risks in the name of their beliefs. They will show great confidence in their followers. They are very persuasive and make very effective use of body language as well as verbal language" (Straker 2010).

As well as making effective use of body language during his lectures, Keating also encourages his boys to be more 'like himself' through his teaching techniques. Some of Keating's classes look more like physical education than poetry lessons -- he takes the boys out into nature, so they can viscerally feel the power of poetry. He encourages them to shout out lines of poetry into the open air, and even when they seem shy, they do as he urges them, because of his confidence in and determination that they learn to take risks. "Charismatic Leaders pay a great deal of attention in scanning and reading their environment, and are good at picking up the moods and concerns of both individuals and larger audiences. They then will hone their actions and words to suit the situation," just like any great and gifted teacher (Straker 2010).

However, Keating is more than just creating a 'cult of personality' in the classroom. He wishes to give his students the tools to better appreciate their lives and youth. "Conger & Kanungo (1998) describe five behavioral attributes of Charismatic Leaders that indicate a more transformational viewpoint: Vision and articulation; Sensitivity to the environment; Sensitivity to member needs; Personal risk-taking; Performing unconventional behavior" (Straker 2010). Keating clearly embodies all of these elements. At the core of his teaching is his vision that his students will learn to appreciate literature in a manner that will not allow them to retreat to their comfortable upper-class enclaves emotionally unscathed. He uses the conservative environment, including the school's ban on girls, to his own advantage, as the sexually curious young men naturally sympathize with Keating, rather than the administration, when he makes jokes about the seductions of poetry. Keating carefully studies his students, so he knows when to tease them, challenge them, and when to show tenderness.

Personal risk-taking is exemplified in Keating's willingness to transgress social and school laws in a way his students do not dare, initially. In contrast, the formal leader of the school, the headmaster, is far less effective in his authoritarian style of leadership than Keating. The headmaster uses convention and coercion, rather than inspiration to lead, and although he 'wins' in the sense that he can fire Keating, director Weir leaves no doubt that the minds and the hearts of the boys are changed after experiencing Keating's style of teaching. The headmaster, like the other teachers at the school, seems incapable of showing a sense of humor, which only hardens the hearts of the boys against him. For example, when one of Keating's disciples says that 'God' is calling, saying that He wants girls to come to the school, instead of laughing at and ignoring this comment, the headmaster views this with alarm. The only method of authority the school administration has to force the boys into submission is expulsion. Yet this is a powerful enforcement technique, given the boy's fears of their parents, and their fears for their future if they do not gain entrance into a good college. Keating, a truly transformative leader, uses many tools of persuasion, while the headmaster only uses one -- coercion -- but because coercion is such a powerful force in 1950s conformist, WASP-y New England America, he is able to use it effectively. The boy's lives depend on their remaining at his school.

Keating's weakness as a leader is that he has difficult conceptualizing opposition because he believes so enthusiastically in his personal cause of poetry and the celebration of life. While not intolerant, Keating sees himself as correct, and those who oppose him as misguided. Thus it is hard for him to understand that anyone might rationally object to the way he teaches, unless they are completely cut off from all of the pleasures life has to offer. Keating's irreverence and humor in the face of opposition is one of the reasons why he becomes a locus… [END OF PREVIEW]

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