While watching the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada for the millionth time, a new question popped into my head – why would anyone work for someone like Miranda Priestly? She creates a high stress environment, is condescending and disrespectful, and is unprofessionally demanding. She may just be a character in a movie, but the leader-follower-situation dynamic represented in the film is reflected in real workplace experiences. After studies of many leadership theories, my perspective shifted from Miranda’s followers to Miranda’s leadership. Through power and influence, Miranda is able to continuously command authority over her followers and the situation.
Miranda Priestly has a very high capacity to cause change in her employees where change actually occurred in the degrees that she wants from her followers, which is the very definition of power (House, 1984) and influence (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 1993). This comes from the sources of social power identified by French and Raven (1959) “by which an individual can potentially influence others” (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 113). Miranda’s leadership is based in three of the five sources that are primarily the function of the situation (legitimate power), the leader (expert power), and both the leader and situation (coercive power) (Hughes et al, 1993, p. 113). Notice that her sources of leader power do not function in the relationship between her and her followers (see Figure 1).
Miranda Priestly is the editor-in-chief of Runway, a high-fashion magazine (the equivalent of Vogue magazine), which is the source of her legitimate power. She holds a high title in the organization therefore is in an official position of authority where employees must perform based on her demands if they wanted to keep their jobs. Her rise to this position is most likely from expert power, “the power of knowledge” (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 113), which is continuously exemplified throughout the film. Her knowledge of fashion and market trends causes others in the industry to follow her direction, where “her opinion is the only one that matters” (Frankel, 2006), so much so that prominent fashion designers change their entire collections. Many employees exclaim throughout the film that so many people would “die” to work as her assistant because her knowledge opens so many doors.
The most notable source of power that Miranda Priestly has is coercive power, “the ability to control others through the fear of punishment or the loss of valued outcomes” (Hughes et al., 1993, p. 119). From the start of the film, the announcement of Miranda’s arrival to the office incites complete panic amongst all employees – people change into shoes that Miranda prefers and even vacates an elevator for her. When her assistant, Andy Sachs, was out running an errand for too long, she was told that the previous assistant was fired because of it and “now works for TV guide” indicating that Miranda has power and influence even in employees’ futures. Miranda’s ability to incite fear in employees of potentially losing their jobs through the consistent use of pressure tactics is shown even in non-business hours. Andy misses dinner and a Broadway show with her father when attempting to fulfill an impossible task demanded by Miranda. Her personal relationships are eventually ruined because the fear of punishment from Miranda led Andy to focus all of her time and energy on her relationship with Miranda. Miranda’s coercive power is so influential that she even successfully convinces the owner of Runway, who is basically her boss, to retain her as editor-in-chief when plans were already underway to push her out.
It is evident that Miranda Priestly’s leadership fits the theory of power and influence. Although she incited much fear, Miranda also created opportunities of growth for her followers. Her assistant realized her strength through the ways Miranda led her and ultimately pursued her dream career. Many of her followers were willing to follow her because merely being professionally connected to her opened up future career opportunities. Working for someone like Miranda Priestly may not be a walk in the park, but it may be beneficial in the long-run.
Frankel, D. (Director). (2006). The Devil Wears Prada [Motion Picture].
Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (1993). Power and Influence. Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience. Homewood, IL: Irwin. pp. 107-131.