Turning Effective Leaders into Extraordinary Leaders

January 4, 2011 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

I teach a course for Executive MBAs on leadership.  Many of the participants are people who hold visible positions in corporations.  Some of them have led change many times.  A few of them are cynical about my course.  What could I possibly teach them?  The interesting thing about the course is what happens to these experienced executives.  They report that the course is a life changing episode, and that they move to a new level of understanding and operation.  There are a number of things that account for this outcome but one of the most important is an assignment that surprises, stretches and transforms them.

The Assignment

The assignment requires that each executive must become a transformational mentor.  This is not an assignment to be a mentor.  It is an assignment to mentor someone so the person is transformed into a leader, more specifically, into someone who understands and can live in the fundamental state of leadership, or Lift.

To make this assignment concrete I ask these students to watch a movie that portrays a man who mentors a woman until she is transformed.  I then ask my students to reproduce the process they witness in the movie.  Once they grasp this challenge, the cynicism disappears.  Even the most experienced executives feel stretched.  The movie is Norma Rae.

Norma Rae

The tale begins in a non-unionized textile mill where conditions are poor. Our heroine is an attractive young woman with a feisty personality. She has two children: One from a former marriage, the other from a short-term affair. She is also in the process of ending a relationship with a married man. Her mother and father both work at the same mill.

Like the rest of us, Norma Rae lives in a transactional world. She lives with her parents, and her father worries about how her inappropriate behavior will further embarrass the family. The implied transactional exchange is that he provides a home for her and, in return, she should behave in a way that reflects well on the family.

When Norma Rae tells her lover she is breaking off her relationship with him, he points out the meals, gifts, and sexual satisfaction he has provided for her. He becomes enraged that she would cut off the sexual favors he expects in return. He then physically abuses her.

Meanwhile, Norma Rae is causing all kinds of problems for her employers. She continually complains about conditions at the factory. To stop her constant complaints, the boss proposes an exchange. He promotes her from machine worker to spot checker, where she monitors the work of the other employees. He expects that giving her this more responsible position will stop her complaints, but this distortion creates unanticipated distortions. Among her co-workers, there are norms of loyalty and equity. When she becomes a spot checker, her coworkers reject Norma because in their eyes she has become part of management. Because she puts a high value on social acceptance, she gives up her promotion and returns to her machine. Her peers immediately welcome her back.

Norma Rae begins dating someone new. When he proposes marriage to her, he points out that he does not owe anyone anything; he eats anything that is put in front of him; he can fix anything electrical; he just got a new job at the gas station; he hands his paycheck over every week; and comes straight home at night. He tells her she has two children and no one to take care of her. He has one child and no one to take care of them. Maybe they could help each other out. Norma Rae thinks about this and replies; “It has been a long time between offers.” She accepts. Later, tensions grow between them. He points out that she is not meeting his expectations in terms of the meals, the laundry, the kids, and his physical needs. These are normal expectations, and she is not meeting them.

As the story unfolds, nearly every interaction Norma Rae has with nearly every man has sexual overtones. The transactional expectations are traditional expectations for a young, single woman living in a small factory town. The transactional expectations help form her personal script. They teach her who she is. As she meets the expectations, she becomes that which is expected. In those areas where she strays from the norms, she is punished by emergent conflict. Many times she is willing to pay the price of defiance. Many times she is not. Like the rest of us, she is a normal person pursuing hopes and fleeing fears.

The Mentor

Into this Southern Baptist town comes a Jewish union organizer. His name is Ruben. He is dedicated to the cause of unionization and has years of experience. He knows his purpose and continually clarifies the result he seeks to create.  He is internally driven and speaks with great authenticity.  He has a passionate interpersonal style and a great compassion for people. He is externally open in that he has a talent to push every interaction to the edge and there he trusts his own spontaneity.  He has faith that he will do the right thing at the right moment.

The Relationship

As his relationship with Norma Rae develops, he conveys no sexual expectations.  He conveys strong expectations for pursuing the union cause.  He speaks from his heart.  He honors her as a full human being who is more than her body.  He continually moves with her to the edge and there remains open to possibility.

She responds to his expectations and begins to work hard to improve life at the factory. When her father dies in the plant, her efforts in the cause of unionization intensifies. At this point, she also begins pushing people. Her efforts, however, become noxious. She pushes too hard and relationships are endangered. She does not know how to hold the edge. Here Ruben, the demanding mentor urges her to soften. He wants people to be hovering at the edge, not tumbling over it.

In the meantime, the two of them create disruptions that stimulate both negative and positive feedback loops. Many of the institutions and centers of power push back on them. Many people complain and renounce their behavior In spite of the resistance they are experiencing, Norma Rae and her friend hold to their purpose and the resulting tensions push everyone outside their scripts. Soon the whole town is in turmoil.

The turbulence peaks when the company posts a letter designed to splinter the work force. It suggests that the black workers are all joining the union and will then dictate what all the white workers can do. This racist ploy provokes physical violence. Ruben tells Norma that the letter is against the law and that they now have management where they want them. Ruben, however, must have a copy of the letter and he is not allowed in the plant, where the letter has been posted.

Norma tries to copy the letter, but is only partially successful. It is made very clear that if she doesn’t abstain from her efforts to unionize the workers she will lose her job. Frightened, she confronts Ruben and tells him that she is going to stop her efforts. She argues that she has three kids and needs a paycheck. Ruben, however, will hear none of her fears, pointing to the bigger stakes. Convinced that he is right, she walks back into the plant and conspicuously copies the letter. The plant manager shows up and confronts her. She continues to copy the letter. When she finishes, he orders her to his office. After another confrontation, he orders her out of the plant.


She leaves the office, followed by a security guard. Instead of leaving the plant, she walks back to her machine. He grabs her arm and says, “Come on Norma Rae.” She pulls away and screams that she will not leave until the sheriff comes to take her out. At this point she is at an emotional peak. She pauses for a moment, and then Norma Rae becomes a transformational leader.

She jumps up on a table, bends over, picks up a piece of cardboard, and writes UNION on it. She then stands with the sign over her head and turns slowly around and around. This goes on for several minutes with all the workers watching her. Finally, one woman turns off her machine. After a time, so does another and then another. Eventually all the machines are shut down. The factory comes to a complete halt. A few days later, the work force votes to unionize.

An Analysis

At a critical moment, Norma Rae was at the edge of chaos and she took a bold action.  The action re-framed the way all the workers thought and that changed their behavior. She transformed her organization. From where did the strategy come? Did she reason out the cause and effect relationships? Did she assume that copying the letter would lead to being ordered out of the plant, that on her way out she could stop at her machine, be pulled away, and then jump on a table and hold up a sign? Did she know that holding up a sign in that situation would stimulate people to turn off their machines? Did she assume that turning off the machines would galvanize the vote for unionization? No.  She did not understand any of these things. She could not predict even a minute into the future. Norma Rae was in the whirlpool of action and she did the only thing she could think of doing. She pursued her commitment in a turbulent system. At the critical moment, she simply stood in her truth. With clear purpose, full authenticity and a concern for the collective good, she stood and held up a sign.

In the fundamental state of leadership we move from being comfort centered to being results centered, from externally directed, to internally directed, from self-focused to other focused.  We also move from being internally closed to externally open, this means we move forward in faith, learning and responding in real time and discovering new resources as they emerge.  In the fundamental state of leadership, we are a dynamic system adapting in real time to the dynamic systems around us.  We are change that facilitates change.  To do this we have to trust our intuition and experiment.  Norma Rae stood on the table because she was in a transformational state.


In the market for leadership literature, there is a demand for information on how to get extraordinary results with minimum risk. People want to know how to get out-of-the box results with in-the-box courage. Most management authors do their best to deliver what they perceive that most readers are looking for. They tend to adhere to the basic assumption that if we examine the leadership of someone who is currently held up as a model, we can work backwards, and find the secrets of their success. Then all we have to do is copy the behavior of the successful person and we will meet with similar success.

It can be helpful to profile our heroes in this way. I do it often. But doing so misses a key point–that the successful person got the result he or she desired because of the state they entered. Success is not just a function of what we do, it is also a function of who we are, what state we are in.

The transformational moment is always unique. It is not something we can imitate because it arises from an unpredictable flow of events.  As we clarify purpose, increase in authenticity and embrace the common good, we increase in moral power.  This is part of the process.  Yet, some will argue that Norma Rae was hardly a moral giant. In fact, her sexual behavior suggests that she had loose morals.  How could she have moral power?

Becoming an Extraordinary Leader

When Norma reached point where she became results centered, internally driven, other focused, and externally open.  There was a new Norma Rae.  For the moment she was in a state of perfect integrity.  She was a transformed person.  She was fully living in the present moment and discovering resources she did not know existed.


For most people around her, the change in Norma was incomprehensible. Ruben, on the other hand, understood this transformation.  We see this difference as the story closes.

After Norma stood on the table, she was arrested. Ruben made bail and took her home to her husband. In a discussion with Ruben, the husband complained that Norma Rae had changed. Ruben replies, “She stood up on that table, and now she is a free woman. Maybe you can live with that, and maybe you can’t.”

The husband considers this, struggles with the concept, but finally makes the commitment to support her in her efforts for as long as she lives. Norma feels the depth of this commitment and reacts to it by drawing closer to her husband. Their marital relationship is thus lifted to a higher level of commitment.

Tackling the Assignment

My executives get instruction and they do readings on the fundamental state of leadership.  But when they watch the movie knowing that they must become like Ruben, it all sinks in.  They know they are being asked to go some place they have not been.  They also realize that they cannot attract someone else into fundamental state of leadership unless they are in it.  What follows is impressive.  They make great discoveries about themselves and others.  Their final papers are full of excitement, insight and personal change.  The process thrills them and it thrills me.  I invite you to this same assignment, and if you are willing, to share with us what you have learned.