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The aim of this paper is to show how two contrasting characters, Katherine Watson and Elizabeth (Betty) Warren, from the movie ‘Mona Lisa Smile’, can be seen as leaders. With different approaches, personalities and overall life prospects, they have intrinsic characteristics some types of leaders possess. On one hand, Katherine Watson is showing how she can inspire and transform the vision of her students at Wellesley, taught by the conservative driven society, making them believe that they can become whoever they want in the future. They can aspire to be more than just a wife and have a household, and that by having one, they do not necessarily need to give up their further education. By doing so, she demonstrates characteristics of a transformational leader. On the other hand, Elizabeth Warren, born and raised in a very traditional and conservative family, always tries to keep a position of command. Regardless if she needs to manipulate, bully or terrorize, her aim is to keep the control of the situation and make others believe that her truth is proper. With this behavior, she demonstrates characteristics of a coercive leader. Katherine and Betty have different visions about the future and ways of affronting situations and confronting others, which they both believe to be correct. However, only one of them is really developing the characteristics of a true effective leader.

Katherine Ann Watson: Transformational Leader

Throughout the movie, the new art history professor Katherine Watson, developed a sense of connection and empathy with her students, that showed them they could think for themselves and decide for their own future. She wanted her class to change their narrow vision of what awaited them after graduation -sometimes even before- and realize they can achieve greatness, when they decide to do it. “But Katherine Watson didn’t come to Wellesley to fit in. She came to Wellesley because she wanted to make a difference” (‘Mona Lisa Smile’, Newell, 2003, 00:02:12-00:02:20). In this manner she demonstrates from the beginning, characteristics of a transactional leader, which she continues to develop during the movie. These types of leaders are believed to be effective leaders, due to the fact that they can impact people’s lives in a matter that is not imposing and that promotes personal satisfaction. Bernard M. Bass referred to transformational leaders as ones who want to broaden the interests of their followers, by creating self-awareness and acceptance of purposes beyond self-interest, they also act in different ways to get to the attention of others. They can generate intellectual stimulation and give individualized consideration, and be inspiring and charismatic (Bass, 1990). These individual characteristics will be further analyzed into Ms. Watson’s character in the following sub-sections.

Intellectual Stimulation Through Art

As a first significant characteristic, in order to keep follower’s interests, a transactional leader must stimulate them intellectually; this means promoting intelligence, rationality and problem solving (Bass, 1990) in diverse ways to maintain attention. During the movie, this distinctive feature can be seen in various scenarios. After Katherine Watson, the new art history professor coming from California, gave her first lesson she realized in order to get to her students, she needed a different approach of teaching. By the first lesson, every one of them without exception, knew by heart the whole year’s syllabus. The students learned things by the book but they lacked freedom of thinking, independence and their own voice. It is then, when Ms. Watson tried different approaches to help them speak out, formulate their own opinions and think for themselves. She started by developing different modalities of class, and trying different methods in order to stimulate the interest of her students and to keep them involved. By the second class, she brought a set of slides which contained a piece of art, a drawing done by herself as a gift to her mother and her mother’s photograph. This time, her students were shocked as the initial class program was not being followed, and it was the first time Ms. Watson asked them to speak out their thoughts. “Is it any good? – Come on, ladies. There’s no wrong answer. There’s also no textbook telling you what to think. It’s not that easy, is it?” (00:16:10-00:16:29). Skeptical at first, Wellesley girls started to answer positively to the teaching method, and began to express what they thought.

Later on, to keep the class interested, Katherine decided to take them outside the classroom where she presented a masterpiece by Jackson Pollock. “Do me a favor. Do yourselves a favor. Stop talking and look. You’re not required to write a paper. You’re not even required to like it. You are required…to consider it. That’s your only assignment today. When you’re done, you may leave” (00:46:11-00:46:30). In this occasion, she did not pressure them to have an opinion and discuss it, she just wanted them to take different things into consideration, see a bigger picture. In that way the professor would promote rationality and intelligence among her students.

Individual Consideration

Another relevant characteristic of a transformational leader is approaching differently their followers, and Bass describes individual consideration characteristic in a transformational leader as giving personalized attention (Bass, 1990). An example of this situation can be seen when Katherine gave a C to Joan, one of her students, and she came to her looking for an answer about why she obtained such a low qualification. She gave a second chance for Joan to submit the assignment, but this time she asked for her opinion, to dig inside and come with ideas of her own. “- Miss Watson, with all due respect… – Bruegel was a storyteller. Find the stories. Break them down into smaller pieces. You might actually enjoy it. – You’re giving me another chance? – So, it seems” (00:33:13-00:33:29).

After directing her to reason, Katherine started looking at her file, still in the presence of Joan, to identify the correct manner to approach the situation and be successful to deliver the message. By that time, Ms. Watson also realized Joan is pre-law in her file and interrogated her into which law school she would be applying, to which she responded none due to the fact she would be married and she has not really thought about it. Katherine then made a hypothetical situation, asking once again where would she apply, and Joan’s response then was well structured, pre meditated and concrete. “- Yale. They keep five slots open for women, one unofficially for a Wellesley girl. – But you haven’t really thought about it” (00:34:19-00:34:29). With that in mind, Ms. Watson encouraged her to apply to Yale, because she believed there is no need to choose between having a family and a career; women were allowed to have both. These are two examples of how Katherine treated her students in different ways in order to gain their trust and to carry her message as a leader.

Inspirational Speech

According to the financial executive article ‘Challenging Times Demand Inspiring Leadership’, “Inspirational leaders present themselves in widely differing ways. Some are soft spoken, while others are highly extroverted. Some connect with subordinates because they are viewed as possessing great nobility, while others make that connection from the sheer force of their passion to ‘take the hill’. Regardless of personal style, an individual can be inspirational for a good portion of colleagues” (Zenger, 2009). Characteristics to which Katherine Watson fits completely, and this applies to the third transformational leader consideration.

After Elizabeth Warren wrote an editorial article about her, Katherine gave a class like no other: this time she would be the only expressing her opinion, and every other person in the room should remain silence. She was full of emotions, and presenting great disappointment on the wasted potential of her students when they decided not to broaden their vision. “What will the future scholars see when they study us? A portrait of women today? There you are, ladies. The perfect likeness of a Wellesley graduate. Magna cum laude, doing exactly what she was trained to do: A Rhodes Scholar” (01:09:28-01:09:50). This was the first time she really expressed by words that the change she was proposing was not only related to her own interest. She expected greatness in order to help the development of the leaders of tomorrow, but at that point all she had was disappointment. “I give up. You win. The smartest women in the country. I didn’t realize that by demanding excellence, I would be challenging…What did it say? What did it say? ‘The roles you were born to fill’ Is that right? The roles you were born to fill? It’s my mistake. Class dismissed” (01:10:32-01:11:42). Katherine was not imposing, she had a vision and it faded in front of her eyes, while she read what was written about her, after giving her class. At the same time, the Wellesley students showed themselves being uncomfortable for what was written, because in most of their minds, they already realized that what her professor was trying to achieve was real, had power and was somehow already embedded in their new beliefs. Through that example, it is the clearest proof of Katherine’s inspirational side, where she influenced people without forcing them, relaying in the fulfilment of her leadership skills.

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Charismatic Inclusion

At this point, in order to allude the attention and real connection with their followers, transactional leaders must possess charisma. Meaning confident, generating trust and capturing in a significant way their attention (Nikezi, Purić, & Purić, 2012). In a way, every action developed in this section, contributes with Katherine’s charismatic characteristics. However, it is not until her students asked her to swear an oath and be part of their secret society, that she truly gains their trust and support. “- Every year, the ARs nominate a member of the faculty to be our guest. -The what? – You’ll see. Come by tonight at 5:00. -Adam’s Ribs. A very secret society. Wait here. First, the oath. Please raise both hands. Do you swear not to repeat what you see, hear or smell tonight? – Smell? – Keep your hands up! Yes, smell. – I do” (01:02:42-01:03:22). This meant her students trusted her enough to talk to her regarding personal matters, and she trusted them to answer, creating a bond between them which results in a complete leadership portrait.

Betty Warren: Coercive and Autocratic Leadership

The second leadership style to be discussed in this paper is the coercive or autocratic and Elizabeth Warren is a great example of that. Unlike the struggles Katherine had to overcome from the beginning, having the privileged position of being the daughter of one of the members of the academic committee, Betty Warren had the power of making her voice being heard. She published editorials in the Wellesley newspaper with her own opinions, usually very drastic and following a very traditional conservative storyline. In this way, she in her hands the control to manipulate messages given and keep herself in a superior status position. Contrasting the effects shown by Katherine, Betty Watson was seen throughout the movie as a character who was always looking a position of power. She did not care if she needed to manipulate information, bully her classmates or threaten the professor in order to keep a position of command. She possesses the characteristics of a sub-style of leadership, a coercive leader which accomplishes tasks through manipulation, terror or bullying (Goleman, 2012). This sub-style will be further explained by exemplification in this section.

When I Write, They Listen

Using manipulative information to make a difference is a common characteristic of coercive leaders (Goleman, 2012) In the movie, believing she represented the school best intentions and traditions, which she tried to follow in detail, Betty Warren wrote several editorials in the internal school newspaper expressing her narrow opinion in a matter that made others believe it was the right thing to follow. After she found out Amanda Armstrong, Wellesley’s nurse, was distributing contraceptives in campus, she made her mission to call her out through that mechanism, and it resulted in the termination of Amanda’s years of service in the school. “By providing contraception on demand, our school nurse is little more than a cheerleader for promiscuity” (00:23:52-00:23:59). This example shows how Betty was not afraid to manipulate or distort information to conduct to power, which makes her a representative of this type of leadership.

My Way or the Highway

A coercive leader has a mentality of do it my way or else (Goleman, 2012) and due to her privileged stand in Wellesley, Elizabeth Warren believed to have the right to confront her superiors when if they represented a threat for what the conservative era and school represented. After her marriage Betty started missing classes, due to the fact that she was in her honeymoon, arranging her new home and taking care of domestic labors. Most of the faculty members ignored that behavior, but Katherine was not an ordinary professor, she expected more from her students. When Betty returned to class she was questioned, by her professor, on her absence. To this regard, she answered in a way to let others around her know she was in position of power. “- Don’t disregard our traditions just because you’re subversive. – Don’t disrespect this class just because you’re married. – Don’t disrespect me just because you’re not. – Come to class, do the work, or I’ll fail you. – If you fail me, there will be consequences. – Are you threatening me? – I’m educating you” (01:01:26-01:01:49). As it can be seen in the dialogue, Betty has a strict policy to follow her methodology as a typical autocratic leader would do; making her a significant figure of this leadership style.

Change in Wellesley-Graduates Mindset

Regardless of the leadership style, in order for a person to become a leader, he or she must have at least one follower, before that they are just lone nuts (Sivers, 2014). During the movie, it is visible how the Wellesley graduates start responding positively to Katherine’s narrative. As they begin believing what she is saying as part of their truth and engaging in different attitudes, with a sense of ownership, making Katherine Watson an effective leader (Dunk, 2019). The results of followership can be represented in diverse events in the conclusion of the film, despite only two will be described briefly. In spite of having very different characteristics, the same unique outcome is achieved: Wellesley women being able to speak for themselves and take their own decisions.

The first glimpse that showed a complete straightforward decision from one of the students, was seen when Joan decided to marry and give up the pursuit of law school. At first Katherine could not understand why she was quitting her dream and tried to convince her otherwise, that she could have both, a family and a career. However, it soon became clear that Joan’s dream was to raise her family not graduate school, standing up behind her choice and making it clear to Ms. Watson (01:31:28).

Furthermore, another significant event, was after Betty Warren realized her husband was being unfaithful to her. Beyond what she taught was true, and despite her previous behavior towards the current society norms, she stood up to her mother, who was imposing her to stay in the unhappy relationship, and filed for divorce (01:48:49).

This ultimately showed, how profound and beyond self-interest was the message that Katherine was trying to deliver, highlighting her as a real transformational leader. And consequently, giving her the followers, she needed.


In the course of this paper, different characteristics of leaders have been described, as well as how effective is the impact on the followers when a given leader approaches them. Despite that Katherine’s and Betty’s leadership styles deferred in significant ways, they both had a very narrow vision and interpretation about how women should behave, this decreased the range of influence to others. In other words, having a one and only concept for the future, they can attract less people to their narrative and make them believe it is their own. These two characters, showed how human and vulnerable they were for moments, and how that vulnerability made them more influencing. Nonetheless, they could be ruthless and reactive in given periods, which help us remember they are human before they are leaders. It is clear that transformational leadership impacts in greater and more concrete ways their followers, as they do it for a good beyond themselves, and can have long-term impact. However, a coercive or autocratic leadership style is also effective if the situation must be solved in an urgent manner, as it is immediate in action.


  1. Bass, B. (1990). From Transactional to Iransformational Leadership: Learning to Share the Vision.
  2. Dunk, C. (2 de 2019). How To Be A Successful Leader: Being a Leader Is Not About Having Authority Over Others, It Is About Inspiring Them. Leadership Excellence, 36(2), 11-12.
  3. Goleman, D. (2012). Leadership That Gets Results. Harvard Business Review, 80,82-83.
  4. IMDB. (2019, 10 23). Mona Lisa Smile (2003) – IMDB. Retrieved from
  5. Newell, M. (Director). (2003). Mona Lisa Smile [Motion Picture]. United States.
  6. Nikezi, S., Purić, S., & Purić, J. (2012). Transactional and Transformational Leadership: Development Through Changes. International Journey for Quality Research, 6(3), 288-289.
  7. Sivers, D. (Director). (2014). How to Start a Movement [Motion Picture].
  8. Zenger, J. (7 de 2009). Challenging Times Demand Inspiring Leadership. Financial Executive, 25(6), 18-22.

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