PSEL: Leadership in Ferris Bueller

Over the weekend, I had a chance to see the 80’s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and I saw that it presented some alternative views of leadership.

The classic duel between hipster/prankster Ferris vs. the dictatorial Vice-Principal Rooney is a classic display of high EI (emotional intelligence) leadership in Ferris vs. low EI in Vice-Principal Rooney.

Ferris is popular because he is able determine what his fellow students’ needs and deliver them (absences, concert tickets, whatever). He further uses his EI skills to understand the motivations of his community and manipulate their behavior to his advantage. As one of the secretaries notes, Ferris is popular with every clique, meaning he has built up quite a constituency.

But essentially, he is community minded. Even his day off isn’t just for him but a gift to his friends as well. Ferris is out for himself, but rarely to the detriment of others. This is why people, even school staff, are willing to help him. His main gap is that he doesn’t yet see adults as his peers, but one day he will. Ferris also leverages a bad hand (a computer instead of a car) to his own advantage (using the computer to delete absences…before the Internet was born). No wonder he’s a genius.

Rooney, on the other hand, just barks orders and expects them to be followed regardless of what his students or staff may want. His leadership is all about his own reputation, and no one is motivated to help him.

But for me, the most interesting leadership story was Ferris’s sister Jeanie. In the beginning of the movie, she sees herself as a victim and is bitter that she can’t “get away with” the pranks that her more popular brother can. She never sees that she has some advantages too like her perceptiveness (enough to see through Ferris) and her crappy, but drivable car. For much of the movie she storms through the school and home spitting out sarcastic venom and not really able to get the information she needs. By the end of the movie though, she has a revelation – she doesn’t have to be a victim. She IS able to leverage her own EI knowledge and work the system to her advantage.

When Rooney comes looking for Ferris, Jeannie realizes that her brother is the better bet and eventually helps him escape Rooney’s clutches. A new working alliance has been formed. Interestingly, Jeannie won’t be a clone of Ferris (she’s just too damned sarcastic), but she won’t be a victim anymore. She’s beginning to understand she can use EI skills to get what she needs and that she has value to trade in too.

In a place as complex as Penn State, things can get screwy. It’s easy to see the insanity and wonder why nothing can be done. It’s much harder to understand that there is a crazy logic to it and begin to use EI to navigate the system. The trick for me is to understand we can’t all be a Ferris. More often we are a Jeanie or a Cameron (Ferris’s neurotic friend), but even so, some leadership skills are accessible for us too.

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One Response to PSEL: Leadership in Ferris Bueller

  1. Christy Helms says:

    Great analogy. Penn State is a complex organization and the ability to operate with emotional intelligence really is a benefit.

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