A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, my family wanted to see the movie "The Devil Wears Prada," even though I really didn't want to (not the first great sacrifice I have made for my family). I had read some lukewarm-to-bad reviews and really don't care about what appeared to be a foofy profile of the fashion industry, something I care about even less.
But I misjudged. Not that it was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of filmmaking. In fact, the story was fairly formula. About 15 minutes into it, you could predict with near precision pretty much where it was going to go.
Other than Meryl Streep, who delivered a masterful performance (I truly could not wait for her next entrance and wished that she would never leave any scene), all the other actors were appealing and carried out their roles about as well as the script would allow. (Not surprisingly, the exception was Stanley Tucci as Streep's loyal henchman, who took his role a lot further, I suspect, than even his script writers could have imagined. His character revealed a tender, independent interior aching to break out of a brutal, up-tight exterior.)
But what really grabbed me about this film was what it said about the working world. Streep's character, Miranda Priestly, based on the editor of Vogue magazine, Anna Wintour, is miserable, sadistic and manipulative to everyone around her: not only to the subordinates who report to her, whom she seems to delight in putting through her equivalent of Marine boot-camp humiliation tactics, but also: fashion designers, who would kill to have a mention of their lines on her pages; would-be challengers to her throne; her husband; and her own publisher, the only one who, other than God (if she believes she is not the deity herself), to whom she is theoretically answerable.
She runs her powerful kingdom -- and it is powerful, shaping the fortunes of businesses and tastes of millions -- through fear and intimidation. And, as played by Streep, she does it without ever raising her voice and sometimes through a mere pursing of her lips or other cryptic signals that everyone is required to understand.
What's amazing to me is how all these people jump to her every command -- whether it has to do with the serious business of the next issue of the magazine or to the peculiar way she likes her cappucinos. And, God forbid, anyone should slip up, or she will bring down her wrath upon them.
I was discussing this with a colleague at work yesterday who had seen the movie four times already (she loved looking at the clothes, she said). Even if this an exaggeration of what the real Anna Wintour is like (and the word is, it's not, but, in fairness to Ms. Wintour, I'm not relying on first hand information), I said that it's a pretty sad state of affairs. And, I said, how is it possible that Vogue is still able to put out what every has to agree is a good product given its culture of fear and intimidation -- let alone, from my vantage point, clownish snootiness?
Well, my colleague argued (though she wasn't defending Wintour or Streep's Priestly but rather playing devil-wears-Prada advocate), maybe the nastiness only extends as far as Wintour's immediate circle.
But, I countered, my experience is that the person at the top tends to set a tone in an organization's culture, and if that leader shows all the managers down the line that this kind of behavior is okay, they will feel safe in behaving the same way. I don't want to take this comparison too far, but, hey, how do you think so many in fascist societies feel free to carry out hideous atrocities and other garden-variety indignities on their fellow citizens? Because they know they can do so with impunity and, indeed, might even be affirmatively rewarded for acting that way.
What's more, doesn't it seem natural that, when hiring others, a leader will look for qualities that he or she likes in himself or herself? If that's the case, who do you think will populate those upper-tier and middle management positions?
Also, I said, how could putting people under such perverse pressure bring out their best and get them to perform well? My colleague answered that in an environment like that people know that if they don't perform well they can be replaced easily. "There are thousands of others who would die to have your job," Streep keeps saying.
And that's probably true. And it's probably true that there are many supremely talented people who are willing to put up with these sorts humiliations to practice their craft at a place like Vogue, which will be their ticket to admission into virtually any other design, editing or photography job anyplace else -- if they can just stick it out long enough at Vogue.
But if they are dying to get out almost as much as they are dying to get in, what's that say about the place? If they perform to spite their boss not because of her leadership, vision and encourgement, how good could that be for the finished product, really? And doesn't that mean that the success of the place balances precariously on a weak foundation that would take only a good, well-focused competitor to undermine?
The exhibit I have in my argument is that I happen to work at a place that is about as opposite as one can get to the kind of environment portrayed in "The Devil Wears Prada," and I can say without any hyperbole that my firm is one of the best performing in its class. People around the industry -- clients and competitors -- acknowledge this, and many of my colleagues who have worked in other firms say ours is one of the most collegial environments they've been in. I think that, not fear and intimidation, is what brings out the best in us and makes us succeed.
As I said in an earlier blog about jerks, bad behavior ought to be a factor when leaders are selected. But, sadly, it's usually overlooked or rationalized ("he's so brilliant," "she's a genius, you know," "he's a very good fundraiser," "I'm not sure what we would do without her,"... ), even when it's obvious and unbearable to everyone. (My experience is that the people who have the real power to remove a jerky leader, his or her superiors, are the ones who who are least likely to bear the brunt of his or her antics, even if they're aware of them, which is why these problems never gets addressed and the underlings keep taking their hits or just keep quitting).
If enough of us would just stop playing along with them and indulging their jerkiness, we could put them in their place -- far from the corner offices and positions of authority where I think they do more damage than good.