Pump the Brakes on the Stakes

How a True Leader Emerges from a Team of 12 Angry Men
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My first experience with the plot of 12 Angry Men came in the form of the early 2000s show Malcolm in the Middle. In an episode entitled “Jury Duty”, Lois (Malcolm’s mom played by Jane Kaczmarek) is called to serve as a juror in a case that she cannot discuss. This episode mirrors the plot of the 1957 original film, and Lois finds herself as the stand-in for the Juror #8 character that was played by Henry Fonda. Though it was pretty refreshing to see the matriarch of the family shame the other jurors into taking the case seriously, I finally watched the original film this year.

12 Angry Men revolves around a group of jurors who have just heard the closing arguments for a murder trial of a boy accused of killing his father. As in any case, the jury is dismissed to deliberate and come up with a decision: guilty, not guilty, or be considered a hung jury (the first two decisions must be unanimous; a hung jury results in a retrial with a new jury). The judge informs them of the stakes — if they find the defendant guilty, he will be sentenced to death by electrocution.

In a secret ballot, the audience finds out that all but one juror — Fonda’s character — believe the boy to be guilty. As the other jurors try to convince Juror #8 of the accused’s guilt, he questions all their assumptions to make sure they are certain of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

More important than the wonderful civics lesson this film provides and the stories that emerge from the deliberation is the deep character study the filmmakers serve to the audience. Each character represents personality types that all of us exhibit in our dealings with others, and can be applied to just about any profession.

The personalities on display during the film force us to question our own dealings with others in the workplace. The truth is, though the film does a good job dividing the traits among the various characters, each of us can succumb to the positive and negative behaviors.

1. Experiences

Many, if not all, of us bring our experiences along when making tough decisions. Those experiences can inform us and give us appreciation for what we’re doing, as it obviously did for Jurors #8 & 11.

An architect by trade, Juror #8 quickly sets himself up as the primary protagonist of this story when he is the initial “not guilty” vote that sets off the deliberation. Devoted to justice and everything else your Social Studies teacher would want you to be, he takes the words “beyond a reasonable doubt” to heart. He is pragmatic and skillfully helps his colleagues contemplate every possible scenario before sending a boy to the electric chair. Juror #11 is a naturalized citizen and watchmaker who demonstrates an appreciation for America’s legal system and takes his role as a juror very seriously.

Experiences can also give us empathy for those who our decisions will impact, as it did for Juror #5, one of the first to change his vote to “not guilty.” The audience never finds out about his career, but we find out early on that he shares a background with the defendant, having grown up in the slums of the city. Experiences, however, can also cloud our judgment. Because of negative experiences, we may approach decisions with bitterness and bias, as it did for Juror #3.

Juror #3 is a small business owner, and is the last holdout in the jury. His steadfast belief that the boy is guilty leads him to quickly lose his temper at the other jurors, and it is clear that he is the film’s primary antagonist. We later find out that he brought his own emotional baggage to the case, and allowed his poor relationship with his son to cloud his views. Even when every other juror changed their vote to not guilty, and the evidence no longer pointed to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, he could not relent, and allowed his emotions to get the better of him.

Though our experiences definitely can inform us, we cannot be slaves to our experiences.

2. Generalizations

Many times, our experiences lead us to make generalizations about people. A racist garage owner, Juror #10 makes his bitterness and prejudice abundantly clear in the opening minutes of the deliberation. He often uses words that come to exhibit our innate prejudices, tying in someone’s background, ethnicity, race, or religion to certain behaviors. In this case, he ties a European immigrant boy from the slums to an obvious life of crime. He insults Juror #5 in his early diatribe, and instead of apologizing asks his colleague to “not be so sensitive.” Disgusted by Juror #10’s racism, the other jurors literally turn their backs on him.

 Ed Begley as Juror #10 (IMDb)

Juror #10 assumed that because the defendant was of a certain economic background and ethnicity, he must be guilty because “they’re all the same.” Those generalizations can be about someone’s race, creed, gender, or ethnicity, among others. In the workplace, there is one area where generalizations can be a misstep, however — hiring practices. Understandably, many human resource departments try to make their hiring process more efficient, especially with the heavy load of resumes that pile on to their inboxes.

Unfortunately, many potentially great candidates get lumped in by some algorithms with those who are not great candidates. Why? They may have the work experience, but lack specific degrees (perhaps they couldn’t afford it). Or vice versa. Perhaps they do not have the work experience for the specific position, but are looking to make a career change. Even worse, they may have both the academics and work experience, but their resumes may be from — gulp — a state university.

Sure, generalizations can emerge when one looks at trends. Those same generalizations, however, can make us miss those “diamonds in the rough.”

3. Apathy

Apathy, or a lack of passion, can be caused by a variety of factors, as this 2014 Forbes article points out. In 12 Angry Men, Jurors #7 and 12 were clearly disengaged from a process that was meant to determine someone’s guilt — they literally did not care that someone’s life was in their hands. These kinds of people can be seen in a lot of settings, whether at your place of business or in your own relationship circles.

Apathetic employees are one of the biggest problems any employer has to tackle — especially if the employer is the cause of that apathy. Apathetic employees are susceptible to a variety of problems:

  • Sloppy work
  • Missed deadlines
  • Missed meetings
  • Increased personal communication during work hours

If you oversee a culture that lacks passion, the top priority should be to reinvigorate that passion. Likewise, if you aren’t passionate about what you are doing, go pursue it! No one should be satisfied living and/or working within the environment described above.

The Tether

Though it appears that Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 is the hero of the film, there is an unsung hero that needs more attention. After his initial arguments, Juror #8 makes a deal with the other men. If he hasn’t convinced one other person to join his side on a second ballot, he will relent and join the others in a guilty verdict. Think about that. Because he was outnumbered, and because he didn’t want to waste anyone’s time, Juror #8 was about to let go of his convictions and allow a child whose guilt he doubted to be sentenced to death. Luckily, he had convinced one other juror.

Juror #9 as the senior citizen of the group is nonthreatening and seemingly kind-hearted. He is the first person who is convinced to switch his vote, admiring Fonda’s conviction. Juror #9 is not convinced that the defendant is not guilty, but he realized he lacks certainty in the boy’s guilt as well. This character is the real hero of this story. If it hadn’t been for him, the jury would have stopped deliberations and sent the defendant to the electric chair.

It is essential that in the workplace we have an open mind — a mind that is curious to hear out all possibilities before coming to a conclusion. He was not the foreman, nor was he one of the main advocates for either side; but, Juror #9 was certainly the leader.

If we believe leadership is about who speaks the most or who can be the most intimidating, Jurors #8 and 3 can be your examples. True leadership, though, can come in the form of soft-spoken curiosity, and the ability to pump the brakes when the stakes are high.

Be more like #9.

Watch 12 Angry Men

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