Thirty-two minutes elapse before we are introduced to Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the hero of the Coen brothers’ film Fargo. In our first glimpse, we see a sleepy woman, in an advanced and uncomfortable stage of pregnancy, being roused at an early hour by a phone call. We quickly realize she is a police officer in a frigid climate (as the title suggests) and is married to Norm, a loving husband who insists on preparing her a hot breakfast before she leaves the house. In fact, Marge is the police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota, and she has been called to investigate multiple homicides and “malfeasance,” as she puts it.
In this sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious tale set only partly in Fargo, North Dakota, we witness this woman’s remarkable leadership. The point of this review is to examine some of her leadership traits rather than other aspects of the movie that have been discussed at length since the movie’s release in 1996.
Leaders are called on to be keenly observant about their environments. Without this trait, they would be at sea in a milieu of baffling circumstances and entirely ineffective. When confronted with a crime scene that seems to confuse her partner, Marge quickly and insightfully assesses what took place from a cursory look at the bloody aftermath (three bodies, two abandoned cars, footprints in the snow). Since we witnessed the actual events in the first 30 minutes, we know she is dead-on accurate in her observations.
A vital characteristic of leadership is coaching, which aids in bringing employees and others up to a higher level of performance. Marge coaches her less astute police partner when he fails to recognize that “DLR” on a license plate signifies “Dealer.” Instead of ridiculing or laughing at him—as we in the audience are—she gently chides him: “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, Lou.”
Who likes confrontation? Even leaders are reluctant to engage in clashes with others. Marge is no different, but she keeps her cool in testy interactions with an evasive car dealership manager, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), and Shep Proudfoot (Steven Reevis), an imposing mechanic with a violent temper. It is clear that these men do not want to be interrogated and, in fact, act rashly as a result of Marge’s even-tempered meeting with them.
A leader knows the limits of appropriate personal or professional behavior. In meeting a mixed-up former high school classmate, Marge is firm in establishing clear boundaries when he tries to come on to her. At the same time, she is compassionate when he shares a tragic (though, as she later learns, fabricated) story.
The most effective leaders do not give up easily. They realize every initiative may not work upon first implementation, and they are prepared to reassess a situation, regroup and consider alternatives, or, simply, try again. Very often this persistence involves recruiting others. Marge is determined to find two killers. When she suspects Lundegaard of lying to her, she returns to the car dealership to interview him again. When he “flees the interview,” she enlists other law enforcement professionals to help her.
Leaders have core values and they are fiercely loyal to those values. Near the end of the movie, Marge makes a simple but clear-cut statement: “There’s more to life than a little money.” After encountering individuals who believe and act otherwise, she can only reply, “I just don’t understand it.” From the beginning of Fargo, we understand that Marge’s emotional compass is linked to her relationship with her husband, Norm. Though she has witnessed brutal murders and despicable human behavior and he seems overly focused on winning a wildlife stamp design competition, they draw strength and stability from one another. She offers him encouragement; he provides the hot breakfast. While this does not seem to be a leadership issue, it does point to Marge’s core value of the importance of loyalty and caring in a sea of wickedness.
In the example of Marge Gunderson we have a somewhat surprising leader. At first glance, she might not look like or seem to be a leader, but the Coens’ script works against appearances.
So can we say Marge Gunderson is an excellent leader? You betcha.