Let me be clear, leadership is no joke. My dad, a successful businessman, always said that leadership would be easy if it weren’t for the people, and wouldn’t you know it, he was right. Over the past many years of working on leadership development programs, I have seen many concepts come and go. The way we expect leaders to behave now, is not what the expectation was, even as recently as 2 years ago, before COVID changed everything. It’s hard to keep up. My dad also happened to spend his entire career in the broadcast industry so you could say that the TV I watched (and continue to watch) is due to a genetic predisposition to the medium. All that time measured in 30-minute episodes was not wasted because I owe at least some of my success as a Leadership Development professional to the lessons I learned watching characters try, fail, and succeed at being effective leaders. So here is what I think leadership development programs should be focused on now, through the eyes of some of my favourite TV characters.
A Lesson from Liz Lemon: Leaders must be themselves
As a female leader in a male dominated industry, Liz Lemon of 30 Rock had plenty of challenges - but owning who she was, was not one of them. She dealt with many difficult employees (actors), and although she learned and integrated wisdom from her mentor, Jack, she never strayed from her own unique style. She made a lot of mistakes, but she was always at her most effective when she was being herself.
One of the reasons so many leadership development programs fail is because they fail to support leaders as they grow into themselves. They expect participants to speak and think and behave as instructed, versus suggesting how to integrate and improve upon the person they already are. Participants in these programs don’t need to “become a leader”; they need to become themselves, as a leader.
A Lesson from Leslie Knope: Leaders must (really) get to know their employees.
Leslie Knope, the intrepid and ambitious leader from “Parks and Rec”, built a team that believed so much in her leadership that they gave up endless after-work hours to help her run her campaign for City Counsel. This loyalty was undoubtedly fostered through many admirable leadership behaviours, including her intelligence and results-orientation. When you watch Leslie as a leader, you see someone who really, truly got to know her team and made them feel special (even Gerry, Larry, Gary). She spent time learning what each member of her team needed to feel valued, and she spent even more time making sure they felt it - especially in those moments when it mattered.
Many leadership development programs will focus on how to engage “types” of employees, but what they really should be doing is telling you how to get to know every employee’s preferred “type” of appreciation, of recognition, of motivation. Then, they should show you how to make scrapbooks to celebrate each one!
A lesson from Captain Holt: Leaders must be vulnerable (effectively)
Captain Raymond Holt is the fearless leader of the 99th Police Precinct in “Brooklyn 99”. As a gay, black man in an historically hostile work environment, he has every reason to be guarded. Although he is difficult to read emotionally, he is always open about his experience to connect with his team and build relatability as a leader. This consistent effort and willingness to share a part of himself he could have kept private, closes the perceived power gap, and encourages one of his squad to come out to him, even though it’s painful. She never would have done this if he hadn’t gone first and created psychological safety. His deep sense of empathy shines through here… even if his face stays stoic.
Leadership development shouldn’t just be about how to get what we expect from our employees, but how if we expect anything from them, we should be willing to go first. We need to teach our leaders how to be more vulnerable, yes, but vulnerable in a way that still feels safe and authentic. When we give vague advice like “share yourself” or “be more vulnerable”, we aren’t really supporting those leaders who aren’t naturally comfortable in that space. We have the opportunity to encourage small, positively experienced vulnerability in leadership development. Leaders should know that they don’t need to overshare to be effective, but they do need to share first.
There are so many excellent leaders in the real world that it hardly seems necessary to pull examples from TV, but I think what these characters do for us is really highlight characteristics that we may be underutilizing and focus the proverbial camera on them. The reason they are fun to watch is because they are based on something real and relatable in us. We all take pieces of other leaders for ourselves, but I’m suggesting we, as leadership professionals, give these pieces to others as well.