Leadership in “Norma Rae”
Leadership in “Norma Rae”
“Norma Rae” is a film based on a true story set in a Southern mill-town. The title character and fellow mill workers start a branch of the Textile Workers Union of America through the use of leadership. The two characters of Norma Rae and Reuben Warshofsky combine their talents to empower and lead the people of the mill from downtrodden workers to proactive union members. When Rueben first comes upon the town, he finds the managers of the mill oppressive to their workers. People have no rights. They make small wages. They work long hours. Rueben starts the revolution for the mill workers by inspiring Norma Rae through Superleadership. Norma Rae in turn empowers and motivates the mill workers to attain their common goal: a union.
Superleadership occurs when a leader leads others to lead themselves. Superleadership is appropriate for Reuben Warshofsky because it applies well to organizational leaders. Reuben is a representative of the Textile Workers Union of America. He came to Norma Rae’s town to start a union at her mill. For his job to succeed, Reuben needs to be able to start the call for union, and leave the area confident that the cause is in good hands. Superleadership is designed to facilitate the leader within every individual. A leader who exercises Superleadership is not necessarily a “charismatic” leader. He may have a set vision and great oratory skills, but he does not lead to be followed or obeyed. He leads so that others can lead themselves and better themselves in the process. Superleadership maximizes the human resources of an organization. In the case of “Norma Rae,” it maximized Norma’s ability to have a voice.
In Superleadership, the power is shared. While Reuben started the union movement, he shared a mutual responsibility with Norma Rae once she was up to speed. Followers lead because they want to. They have a stake in what they do. They believe their actions are for a greater cause. A Superleader develops self-leadership through compensation and constructive reprimand. He fosters an environment where people can be free to explore their abilities and gain confidence in what they find. This environment is essential to Superleadership. Only in an open environment can this type of leadership employ the potency and knowledge of the followers. It is the duty of the Superleader to help develop a group’s skills once power is divided among the followers.
Self-leadership can be learned through Superleadership. People are not “born” to lead. They need not be educated to be motivated or to learn. A Superleader provides a self-leader with direction. He orientates the person with the situation and helps explore the talents and skills necessary to get the job done.
Reuben Warshofsky practices Superleadership on Norma Rae. He is a labor organizer looking for aid in a town that is ignorant of unions. The first person he meets is Norma Rae. She is a thirty-one year-old working-class mother of three. She is poorly educated and going nowhere fast. Her two children were by two different men. Only at the beginning of the movie does she brake off her relationship with a married man. Men oppress her in her life. Her bosses at work oppress her. They care not for her mother when she goes deaf. They reject every attempt Norma Rae makes to improve working conditions. She is a woman battered by life, but above it all she reveals an acute understanding of the world. “You lie with dogs, you get fleas.” She tells this to Reuben on their second meeting shortly after the married man slapped her. Reuben sees this glimmer of life in her and offers her hope when he says, “I think you’re to smart for what’s happening to you.”
Reuben eventually leads Norma to self-leadership. Reuben tells Norma Rae the way things could be at the mill and she is inspired. He explains that the textile industry is the only industry not unionized. Reuben says to people at the first church meeting that things will not change, “not unless you make it happen.” Reuben encourages the people to join him and share in the goal to unionize the mill. Norma Rae is the only one who accepts the challenge at first. Reuben gives Norma a voice. He teaches her how to fight for a union. She starts by signing a union card. She then wears a union button and hands out others. The woman before was pushed around and uneducated. Now she is typing documents, making copies, and cold-calling her fellow workers; all for the sake of the union. Reuben’s Superleadership extends to things outside of the union. She begins to read Dylan Thomas. She allows blacks and whites to visit her home together. Norma makes her own decisions.
Her priest insults her when he will not allow a bi-racial meeting and without delay, leaves the church. When her new husband is upset with her time-consuming work, she yells back at him, and he respects her for it. Norma Rae no longer allows people to push her around. Her bosses at work continually try to make her quit: they make attempts at character assassination; they work her father literally to death; through it all Norma Rae perseveres. The management posted a sign on the bulletin board to enrage anti-union sentiment. They try to stop her from copying it and she responds, “I started it, I’m going to finish it!” Norma Rae shows her self-leadership by facing the managers of the mill. She serves a higher purpose that they cannot defeat. She evolved as a person through Reuben’s guidance. When times were tense, he was there to compliment her or to sit her down and chew her out. She was arrested soon after she copied the bulletin board and she was in tears. Reuben explained to her that she had just a taste of what was to come. He prepared her for the battle, and gave her the skills to fight it herself.
The path proves to be an uphill battle, yet Norma Rae is able to encourage and motivate her followers at the mill. She bears pressure from management, resentment from mill workers and suspicion from her husband, but she stays true to her goal. She motivated people using situational approaches. She changed certain aspects of the situation in order to fit the needs of the followers. Her means of motivation were great and diverse, but it fit best under the title of the operant approach. The operant approach modifies rewards and punishments based on observable behavior. If someone’s direction, intensity, or persistence needs to be changed, a reward or punishment is delivered. In the case of Norma Rae, if someone aids the union, they can imagine a brighter future. If someone denies unionization of the mill, they will continue to work long hours for subsistence pay. Norma Rae has her own system of rewards and punishments. She knows the workers at her mill. She speaks to them as a friend, a friend who knows about them personally.
Her reward can be a compliment or a question about a loved one. Through Reuben she developed the ability to influence people by means of flattery. She compels people to volunteer their time for the union movement so that their children can live a better life than they do. Norma knows what makes people tick and she uses this knowledge to motivate the people to her cause. When her father dies at the mill, he becomes a modern-day martyr to rally around in hopes of a brighter future. The mill workers follow Norma Rae not because she is a saint; they know of her quick temper and sexual history. They follow her because she is passionate about her cause.
The more confident Norma becomes in her role, the more she embodies her cause. She does not pretend to be anyone but herself, but she holds the union to higher standards. She is able to command the allegiance of her peers and yet remain equal to them. Her passion is what compels them to follow. In the end she gives them their greatest reward: they become a union. She sacrificed her job–and almost her marriage–to bring her goal to fruition. The union debate came down to a vote, 427 to 373 in favor of a union. This close ballot likely gained the extra needed votes due to Norma’s most memorable moment of self-leadership and motivation.
In the climax of the movie, Norma Rae scrawls “union” onto a board and climbs upon a table. The sign is held above her head for three long minutes. She stands on the table willing to sacrifice everything she has for the sake of the union. She stands on the table holding up a word that is a promise for a better life. On the table, scared but determined, she inspires her co-workers. One by one they turn off their machines. A floor that one moment was a whir of noises and movement is reduced to a deafening silence. Norma demonstrates the power an individual can have to motivate people when they believe so fully in their cause.
“Norma Rae” is a wonderful example of Superleadership and the motivation techniques of a leader. The journey of the mill starts with Reuben Warshofsky and his affect on Norma Rae. She in turn gains self-leadership and is able to use it to motivate her peers to unionize. It is leadership from the bottom up. It is an example of the fortitude of individuals when they are able to channel their power and organize change. It is an example of the change that can be made when backed by the strength of many able followers.