Leadership ‘Behaviour’ in the ‘Freedom Writers’

Leadership is an extremely complex topic with many definitions and many approaches. For the sake of this post we will explore leadership as defined by Joseph. C. Rost (1993):

“Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes and outcomes that reflect their shared purposes” (Rost 1993 cited in Daft 2011:5).

We will look at the film ‘Freedom Writers’ with this leadership lens. Freedom Writer’s is a film based on a true story about Erin Gruwell, a first time teacher who is assigned to a class of underperforming students who have experienced racial and gang violence all their lives. The story is based in Long Beach, California in 1994. At this time Long Beach California had a high rate of gang violence, and Woodrow Wilson High School implemented a voluntary integration program.

We will focus on the leadership behaviour of the teacher Erin Gruwell. Among the many leadership approaches we can focus on, we will look at transformational leadership because Erin can be seen as a transformational leader, because by the end of the movie, she transformed the performance of her students completely. We analyse this in more depth below. However, prior to that we need to understand what transformational leadership is. According to a definition by Northouse (2013):

“Transformational leadership is a process that changes and transforms people… (it) involves an exceptional form of influence that moves followers to accomplish more than what is expected of them” (Northouse 2013).

We see a total contrast of the behavior of the students from the beginning of the film to the end of the film, and this is due to the influence that Erin had on them.

Boehnke and DiStefano (1997) identify five behaviours seen in transformational leaders. They are, visioning, inspiring, stimulating, coaching, and team building. We will apply these behaviours to analyse Erin’s leadership behaviours. When it comes to visioning the leader has a clear vision and communicates this to followers (Boehnke and DiStefano, 1997:2). In this case Erin wanted “her class of at-risk students to learn tolerance, apply themselves, and pursue education beyond high school” (IMDb 2007). Through this behaviour “the leader expresses optimism about the future, with strong expressions of personal confidence and enthusiasm” (Boehnke and DiStefano, 1997:2). Erin had to face many barriers; whilst the integration is what attracted Erin to this school, she was not prepared for the nature of her class, with students who were uninvolved and uninterested. The student’s did not respect her; they made fun of her and she had to deal with violence in class. Added to that the principle of the school did not believe that she could do it and did not support her with the material she needed. Despite all these barriers that were bringing her down, she remained optimistic and hopeful. Daft (2011) states that, “It is the vision that launches people into action” (Daft 2011:321), therefore visioning is an important characteristic of a transformational leader. This may also be identified as ‘idealised influence’ as presented through the model of transformational leadership by Bass (1985) (cited in Northouse 2013:190).

The second behaviour is ‘inspiring’. Through this behaviour the leader has the ability to create excitement about their vision and “express their dreams in highly motivational language” (Boehnke and DiStefano, 1997:2). In the same way, leaders who inspire can encourage followers to achieve more than they thought possible (Williams 2006:29). An example of this can be seen when Erin gave the “toast for change”, which inspired them to breakthrough their barriers and follow their dreams no matter what other people say or do to them. Bass (1985) identifies this as inspirational motivation where the leader inspires through motivation (Northouse 2013:193).

Thirdly, ‘stimulating’, also known as ‘intellectual stimulation’ (Bass 1985 cited in Northouse 2013:193), where “the leader arouses interest in new ideas and approaches and enables (followers) to think about problems in new ways” (Boehnke and DiStefano, 1997:2). Williams (2006) echoes this idea by stating that transformational leaders “make fun a priority” (Williams 2006:29). This can be seen when she teaches through music, poetry and games. She also uses material they can relate to such as lyrics by rapper, TuPac, to teach them about poetry. She brought up and spoke about controversial topics such as racial discrimination to get them thinking about these issues. She also aroused their interest in the holocaust and even took them to the holocaust museum and arranged a dinner with the survivors. This was all done by her own means because the school refused to spend for it.

The fourth behaviour of a transformational leader is ‘coaching’. This is where a leader “provides hands-on help” to improve the performance of their followers (Boehnke and DiStefano, 1997:2). Bass (1985) identifies this as ‘individualised consideration’ (Northouse 2013:193). Characteristics of coaching include listening, encouraging and supporting (Boehnke and DiStefano, 1997:2). This can be seen when she gifted them with journals to write in everyday. They could write anything they wanted (songs, poetry, stories etc,) it was not graded and they did not have to share it with anyone. But if they wanted to share it with Erin they can leave in a special cabinet, and they all did. She also bought them new books to read from her own money, paying for it by working two jobs. Previously, they never got new books and felt unimportant because of it, and therefore were not motivated. But Erin found a way to motivate them.

Finally, team building, where the leader would behave in a way that would increase “trust and self confidence in the team” (Boehnke and DiStefano, 1997:2). This was seen in the film when she did activities with them to make them see that they are just like each other despite their skin colour or what gang, or part of town they are from. An example would be ‘the line game’ where she questioned them about music tastes, life experiences etc. and got them to step on a line if they could relate to it. Team building is an important behaviour in this context because in contract to individual learning “team learning bears the potential for learning outcomes with a higher level of quality…” (Raes et. al. 2012:287).

The end result showed that her style of leadership was truly transformational. Daft (2011:321) states that transformational leadership can make productive change happen. The students were inspired to change and it showed because they started getting rid of guns, they stopped associating with gang members, and they started integrating within the class and talking to each other. Added to that many of her students were the first to graduate in their families and go to college.

Thus, in conclusion we could see that Erin Gruwell was a transformational leader because of her visioning, inspiring, stimulating, coaching, and team building, which could be seen throughout the entire film. On an ending note it is important to consider what would have happened to the students if Erin did not teach them all the way to the end of their school lives, would they have carried on with her dream for them, or would they have let go?


Boehnke, K. and DiStefano, A.C. (1997). “Leadership for Extraordinary Performance”. Business Quaterly. Vol. 1. No. 4.

Daft, R. L. (2011). Leadership. 5th Ed. South-Western: Cengage Learning.

IMDb (2007). Freedom Writers [online]. Retreived at < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0463998/> [17/09/2014]

Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice. 6th Ed. USA: Sage Publications.

Raes, E., Decuyper, S., Lismont, B., Van den Bossche, P, Kyndt, E., Demeyere, S., and Dochy, F. (2012). “Facilitating Team Learning Through Transformationa Leadership”. Springer Science + Business Media B.V. Vol. 41, pp. 287-305.

Williams, M.(2006). The Transformational Leader Mindset. In Mastering Leadership. London: Thorogood.


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