Dorothea Dix’s leadership style uses courage Deborah Romig

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Dorothea Dix’s leadership style uses courage

Deborah Romig

Virginia Commonwealth University
A courageous leader demonstrates a passion for promoting a vision despite opposition from others, and from societal norms. Among people who embody this trait is Dorothea Dix. Miss Dix initiated reforms to promote humane treatment of the insane in America and the world (Michel, S. 1995). Her first step to becoming a courageous leader was to define her vision by gathering information, planning a strategy to initiate change and developing the passion for her vision. This process took her on a personal journey with mental illness and recovery. She used this experience to propel her into championing the cause for reform despite many obstacles. In addition, Miss Dix demonstrated three aspects of courage that an effective leader must embrace: taking action, letting go of ego by delegating, and communicating strategically (Treasurer, B. 2011). This discussion will start with how Ms. Dix formulated her vision and then how she demonstrated these three aspects of courage in her leadership.

Developing a Vision

In the process of studying the role of courage in leadership, and given the definition of courage, it is important to note how Dorothea Dix developed her vision that became her vehicle for leadership. At first glance, Dorothea Dix did not seem like the sort of person to lead anything, much less initiate a world-wide societal change. She had no political connections, she was not wealthy, she was not born into an influential family, and she was mentally fragile (Gollaher, D.L. 1993). Despite these challenges she did exhibit some common characteristics of leaders. She had a work ethic that consumed her and she had a relentless desire to carve her niche in the world for the benefit of others. She initially tried the traditional feminine careers of governess, teacher and writer, but none of these seemed to satisfy her sense of purpose (Gollaher, D.L. 1993). She finally found her true vision – promoting the healing of people with mental illnesses – by experiencing her own mental collapse and subsequent healing. Her experiences became her personal frame of reference for the idea that mental disorders could be treated, not just contained (Gollaher, D.L. 1993). After returning to America she needed some time to reflect and plan a way to direct her vision into reality for those suffering in jail cells being treated as criminals rather than receiving appropriate treatment for their afflictions. Her process of defining her vision, planning a strategy for applying her findings to American society and approaching lawmakers to change policies took at least three years. Thus Dorothea Dix provides an example of how effective leaders also take time to plan before initiating action (Glickman, C.D. (2002). Her courageous leadership came from a heart-felt passion, enabling Ms. Dix to take chances that were remarkable during the middle of the 1800’s. She confronted adversity stubbornly moving forward even when faced with defeat, providing us with an example of courageous leadership.

Courageous Leadership Takes Action

Dorothea Dix acted courageously to make her vision a reality. Several key elements of her actions are noteworthy and are examples of her courage. First of all she was a woman in the mid 1800’s. This meant that she did not have the right to vote, she could not hold political office and she certainly could not address any legislative body. Instead she used a written appeal or a “memorial” which had to be read to any legislative audience by a willing male representative (Michel, S. 1995). She carefully constructed these memorials in several respects. She started by appealing to the lawmaker’s moral code in how people should be treated. She also encouraged the readers’ close identification with the sufferers by referring to them as people rather than the usual derogatory names they were called. She used research from reformers such as Philippe Pinel, the well-known French psychiatrist and William Tuke, the Quaker businessman who brought Pinel’s methods to England adding credibility to her ‘speeches’ (Michel, S. 1995). According to Michel, she was equally careful in creating and maintaining an image of professionalism and decorum to lend credibility to her appeals for reform. She visited many prisons and carefully recorded her observations. In her travels she crossed many state boundaries and found similar treatment everywhere. She found herself in situations where the caretakers only allowed her to visit certain sections of their institutions. She did not let that stop her and she insisted on visiting all of the buildings in each of the facilities she inspected finding many disparities in treatment. She met with some successes at individual state levels, but defeat at the federal government level when her bill was ultimately vetoed by President Pierce (Morris, C. 2011). Despite these failures, she is still viewed as the person responsible for initiating “the thrust toward broadening the role of government in providing institutional care and treatment of the mentally ill” (Michel1995). In her career, she was credited with founding or enlarging over thirty mental hospitals in the United States and abroad (Michel, S. 1995). Courageous leaders such as Miss Dix take action despite adversity, opposition and failure.

Courageous Leaders Delegate

Courageous leaders let go of their own egos for the sake of perpetuating the vision. Miss Dix is an example of this trait of courage because she had to rely on a male spokesman to influence politicians to take legislative action so permanent reform could happen. “As a woman, she cannot occupy the hero’s role to the end, but must step aside to make way for a “true” hero – a man” (Michel, S. 1995). As she moved forward with her cause she had to rely on connections that she made and build networks in order to perpetuate change (Michel, S. 1995). There is evidence that Miss Dix did “collaborate” with British reformers by using some of their strategies and applying them to American politics (Gollaher, D.L. 1993). Even with those efforts, she had the reputation of working alone. She did not use the other reform movements of the time period to assist her in realizing her vision. She worked at a “perfectionist fervor which strengthened her will at the cost of psychological isolation” (Thomas, J.L. 1965). These facts about her beg the question of whether her efforts could have been more successful had she used some of the established reform agencies or successful reformers to carry her message.

Courageous Leaders Use Communication Effectively

Finally, Dorothea Dix used communication effectively in her efforts to bring about change in the treatment of people who suffered from mental illness. Courageous leaders are willing to use the power of communication to initiate controversial discussions, share unpopular ideas, and provide tough feedback (Treasurer, B. 2011). Miss Dix used the ‘memorial’ as a vehicle to include all of those aspects in her written communication. She used the ‘memorial’ to start controversial discussions by personalizing the plight of the insane and graphically describing their treatment. She provided tough feedback to lawmakers who were either too corrupt or ill-equipped to change the system. Her communication shocked people into action much like other historical books such as “Common Sense,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and “The Jungle.” She provided a wealth of data and documentation as examples to her claims of abuse and neglect which proved very effective. She went beyond shocking the public, she also instructed people on how to respond and what they could do to help change this atrocity. Leaders use communication to bring people to a point of discomfort because change does not happen when people are comfortable. Miss Dix realized this and used her communication skills to bring her readers to a point of discomfort thus initiating change. Effective, courageous leaders are willing to advocate on the behalf of those who cannot advocate for themselves and certainly Dorothea Dix is an example of such a leader. She became a ventriloquist for the insane. “I am the voice of the maniac whose piercing cries from the dreary dungeons of your jails penetrate no your halls of Legislation,” she declared to the North Carolina Legislature (1848a, 1) (Michel, S. 1995). Thus Miss Dix courageously used communication as a springboard for reform.

In summary, courage is a platform for all other leadership qualities to appear; it is having the strength of character to persist and hold on to ideas in the face of opposition (Voyer, P. 2011). Without courage, the leader has no vision and cannot effect growth. Dorothea Dix exemplified this quality in her accomplishments to provide humane treatment for mental illness.


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Deb, there are some great points in your paper. In some places, your thoughts need to be organized a little better, and some passages need some rewording. My biggest concern at this point has to do with your APA formatting. There are several issues I pointed out that you need to address. Going back to your earlier papers, some of these issues were pointed out there as well. Please take special care to fix these in your next paper, as they are the main reason for your lower score.
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