Encountering Leaders and Exploring Leadership Issues Using Independent Media
Margie Nicholson, Columbia College Chicago
As a teacher in the Senior Seminar Program at Columbia College, a visual, performing, media and communication arts college in downtown Chicago, I have looked for new ways to engage my students in the study of leadership. Over the past three years, I have used independent media to introduce students to a diverse group of leaders, to illustrate leadership topics, and to reinforce the major themes of our Senior Seminar program: voice, values and vision.
Independent media, particularly the documentary format, profiles historic and contemporary leaders -- from artists and activists to environmentalists and explorers – showing us their strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and challenges. By using independent media in class, I hope to provide students with “raw material” to use as they formulate their own theories about leadership and, ultimately, to encourage students to seek out independent voices in the media, rather than relying solely on the heavy diet of mass media that we all consume.
Media can be a powerful and memorable tool because it takes us beyond the walls of the classroom, employing images and sound to engage our emotions and inspire our hopes and dreams. Who could forget – or fail to be moved by --Earnest Shackleton and his crew during their two year struggle for survival in the Antarctic, Maya Lin defending her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Julia Butterfly Hill aloft in her beloved redwood, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. calling on citizens to join the Montgomery bus boycott?
Why use independent media in the classroom?
During the evolution of the Senior Seminar program, my colleagues and I have used excerpts from feature films such as Field of Dreams and Twelve Angry Men to talk about course themes such as developing a vision, using your voice, clarifying your values, and offering service. During a presentation at the 2002 International Leadership Association Conference in Seattle, Scott Graham from Wayne State University shared his strategies for using feature films -- such as Saving Private Ryan and Erin Brockovich – to teach leadership. He demonstrated how film clips could be used to explore the key leadership behaviors identified by James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their classic text The Leadership Challenge.
While the familiarity of feature films – and their widespread availability – may be appealing to teachers of leadership, independent media and particularly the documentary form, which shows real people evolving as leaders in real situations, may have more usefulness and applicability. Independent media is non-commercial work, often self-funded, in which the subject emerges from the passion and conviction of the maker. This work is typically more values-driven, more socially conscious than mainstream media. Independent filmmakers address controversial subjects and ask tough questions that for many reasons commercial filmmakers are not in a position to do.
Documentaries allow students to see a variety of people in leadership roles, particularly young people or ordinary people with whom they may identify. Through the power of the media, they can “meet” young activist Steven Cozza, who launched “Scouting for All” to protest the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay policy, and Olympian Chris Ernst, who protested the lack of locker room facilities for women athletes at her college. They can see Saul Alinsky training ordinary people to become leaders and meet a young Iowa housewife Denese Becker, who remembered a family and community tragedy in Guatemala and began to speak out on human rights issues.
Why use documentaries?
What is documentary film? According to filmmaker Jill Godmilow, “I am looking for a label to replace “documentary” that would include, besides the kinds of films I produce, all the films that make some kind of claim to represent a real (not fictional) world, and that do not contain performances by professional actors (but by social actors) – that is, everything but scripted drama. …I think they all exhibit a common defining trait: inherent in their stance toward their audiences is the claim not so much to educate, but to edify…. To change people’s minds or ways of seeing is always there at the basis of all non-fiction.” [i]
In documentaries a diverse group of people are presented as leaders. Young and old; black, white, Latino and Asian; rich and poor; straight and gay; artist, athlete, housewife and student – each person can heed the inner voice and emerge as leader. African American Margie Richard is featured in Fenceline: A Company Town Divided. Denese Becker from Discovering Dominga is a Guatemalan woman and Maya Lin is a young Chinese American artist and architect. Brother Outsider tells the story of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. In Paul Taylor: Dancemaker and A Hymn for Alvin Ailey we see artists as leaders. And in Maggie Growls, viewers meet irreverent Maggie Kuhn, who founded the Gray Panthers at the age of 65 and who urged her followers to “do something outrageous every day.”
Documentaries allow us to see real leaders, as they were and are, in all their depth and complexity. We see leaders facing opposition, such as filmmaker Michael Moore and victims from the Columbine shooting confronting corporate executives. We see leaders making tough choices, such as choreographer Paul Taylor, firing a dancer who no longer fits his vision. And we see that leaders often have to pay a price for speaking out, as we watch Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping getting arrested for civil disobedience.
What are the benefits and challenges of using documentaries?
Documentaries offer an added value in the classroom, introducing students to whole new realms of information and exploration. As filmmakers tell their stories, they incorporate images and data about history, geography, art, dance, civil rights, social justice, and the environment. For example, most documentaries about the Shackleton expedition include amazing still photographs and 35 mm motion-picture footage taken by Frank Hurley, the original photographer for the 1914-1916 expedition. Just looking at these images inspires curiosity about geography, climate, shipbuilding, polar exploration, and the history of photography. In Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision, we hear the artist talk about the role of art and the purpose of memorial. We see the Congressional Hearings in the early 1980s and the rage of the Vietnam veterans. In addition to lessons in leadership, this documentary enlightens us about the role and responsibility of the artist and the country’s ambivalence about the war in Vietnam. These details add richness and depth to the classroom experience.
While documentaries open us up to this broader view, they also inspire us to take a deeper look at their subjects and issues. Potential themes for further on-line and library research, based on the media included in this selected videography, could include: leaders of the civil rights movement, great explorers and expeditions, training citizen activists, or artists as leaders.
Independent films and videos are usually shorter than feature films, typically ranging from 30 to 90 minutes. Once the rights have been purchased or the tape has been rented, teachers can show the entire work or can select the segment that best suits their learning objectives. An added benefit of using media in the classroom is that if a film clip is screened in class prior to discussion, teachers know that everyone has “read” the text.
There are some challenges to using independent media in the classroom.Finding appropriate and useful documentaries is not easy and may require a substantial investment of time and money on the part of the teacher.There is no master list of independent work; reviews and transcripts are scarce.It may be necessary to preview many tapes before finding one that works. Teachers can search on-line for appropriate materials and watch websites for the Independent Television Service and P.O.V. for announcements about upcoming programming. Most distributors provide their listings on-line and are willing to send out preview copies to educators.
Finally, the price of renting or purchasing these films and videos varies dramatically. Several videos, including A Hero for Daisy or Bowling for Columbine, can be obtained at low cost. Other productions, such as Culture Jam or Discovering Dominga, may be rented for under a hundred dollars or purchased for several hundred dollars. There are a variety of Shackleton documentaries available; the best, Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, is shown in IMAX Theaters and is available on DVD with no public performance rights.
How can documentaries illustrate leadership themes and issues?
It may be said that leadership is taught by example and learned by experience; if so, documentaries provide students and teachers with memorable examples and vicarious experiences. Depending on the goals of the teacher, independent media can be integrated into an entire semester or a single class. For an overview of leadership or an exploration of historical and contemporary approaches, the semester might start with an excerpt from a documentary about Shackleton with a discussion about the “great man” theory of leadership and stereotypical images of leaders throughout history. Later in the semester, clips about Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin and Saul Alinsky might stimulate a discussion about the leader as spokesperson or as organizer, starting with a provocative quote from Alinsky: Paul was the great organizer of the Church; without him, Christ was just another guy on a cross.
A leadership course based on Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge might use excerpts from Butterfly to illustrate the leader’s responsibility to model the way. The ad that Shackleton supposedly ran in London newspapers –Men wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success – could launch a discussion about inspiring a shared vision. Excerpts from Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin could illustrate the concept of challenging the process. The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy offers many examples of enabling others to act. Finally, in Mighty Times and A Hymn to Alvin Ailey, we see many leaders and many ways to encourage the heart.[ii]
More in-depth studies of leadership could focus on an individual, such as Ernest Shackleton. In addition to the documentaries about Shackleton, two books discuss the leadership lessons of the 1914 expedition in great detail: Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer[iii] and Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition.[iv] A case study or class about leadership could also be developed from the rich materials available on the Civil Rights movement. In addition to Mighty Times and Brother Outsider, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and excerpts from the PBS series, Eyes on the Prize, would be useful resources.
In reviewing the following videography of documentary films and videos relating to leadership, thoughtful themes emerge for the consideration of teachers as well as students. What evidence can be found in these documentaries for the assumption that leadership can be taught? If we are teaching our students to be leaders and encouraging them to speak up for their values, how will we respond if they protest, challenge the system or even engage in civil disobedience to pursue their passions and emulate their leadership role models?
As the final assignment for my Senior Seminar: Inspired Leadership class, each student is required to write a speech on leadership that could be delivered to the graduating class. The student must explain why leadership is important, develop and support a personal definition of leadership, and integrate the examples we’ve seen and discussed in class into a compelling call to action for classmates. Given that thousands of books are written about leadership each year and that leadership experts have yet to agree on a common definition of leadership, this can be a daunting task for students. After a semester of viewing, discussion and reflection, it’s rewarding to see them rising to the challenge and emerging as leaders.
[i] “Godmilow, J. (1997). How Real is the Reality in Documentary Film? History and Theory, v36, no4,
[ii] Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z.(2002). The Leadership Challenge, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
[iii] Morrell, M. & Capparell, S. (2001). Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer,New York: Penguin Books
[iv] Perkins, D.N.T. (2000) Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition,AMACOM
This was initially published in Building Leadership Bridges 2004, a journal of the Center for Creative Leadership and the International Leadership Association.