PSEL: Projecting Leadership (in the Movies of course)

Working Girl

One of the most painful pieces of career advice I have received is that I that I needed to bump my wardrobe and makeup options if I wanted people to take me more seriously. I immediately flashed to the 80s romantic comedy Working Girl in which Staten Island secretary Tess Harper (Melanie Griffith) gets a new hair cut while proclaiming “[If] you wanna be taken seriously, you need serious hair.”

It turns out that she (and her super WASPy boss Katherine (Sigourney Weaver)) were probably right in a lot of ways. Although Tess begins as a secretary, she takes a lot of night courses to earn a business degree and even her creepy stock broker co-workers know she has good business finance instincts. The problem she has is persuading management that she can be a financial analyst. The 80s high hair is ultimately her undoing, and although it’s an unpleasant realization there is some merit to it. Would you pay someone high fees for stock advice unless they looked like a stock broker? Probably not.

Another piece of unpleasant but true wisdom from Katherine is that you need to build relations with people you might not ordinarily socialize with in your private life. After all “Today’s junior prick is tomorrow’s senior partner.” How much you want to maintain relations is up to you – I am not sure if I have the capability to share a bottle of champagne with two straws as Katherine coyly offers to a colleague.

Fortunately Working Girl isn’t all about looks but also about backing up your looks with substance like knowledge and ethics. It’s true that Tess’s updated looks do get her into the fabulous networking events she needs to attend, but ultimately she impresses others with her financial acumen and willingness to look anywhere for unique business opportunities (“I read a lot of things [like W Magazine]. You never know where the next big idea will come from.”) As successful as her unwitting mentor Katherine is at networking, she is eventually revealed to be a bit too untrustworthy, even for corporate America. Sometimes you need to be patient enough for Karma to work through its process.

Die Hard

While I was contemplating the need to contemplate another makeover, I remembered another 80s classic Die Hard which sneaks in some social commentary on blue vs. white collar workers along with some very satisfying thrills. During a fairly recent re-viewing sometime in the 2000s, I realized that the movie is a running commentary on how people in management often ignore information and recommendations from the blue collar class.

The obvious ones are NJ off-duty cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) and later beat copy Sgt. Powell both trying to convince police headquarters that a major incident is happening even though building security denies it. In fact, Sgt. Powell is reprimanded for not making the call through proper channels when his radio is cut off.

But a more telling incident happens later when the FBI finally intervene. FBI protocol dictates to cut off the power to the building and surrounding area. An electrical worker tries to explain that he doesn’t have to cut off power to the entire block, but can isolate to just the building. The lead agent completely ignores the advice and orders a power cut for the entire block. Of course, the electrical worker does it in the interest of continued employment.

While it is important to maintain authority and keep your clothes looking polished, it is also important to listen to what your colleagues or “supervisees” may be trying to tell you, even if they don’t happen to be in a suit and tie. More than once, I have had students comment that they can’t access an item online. It’s only when I check to “verify” that the item is there that I realize that the item is in fact missing. As a result, I’ve learned to appreciate students who approach me with problems…right after I get done rolling my eyes for the interruption.

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