Memo to Julia Louis-Dreyfus: How Veep Can Lead Without Power

by Gloria Feldt on April 23rd, 2012
in ForbesWoman, Gender, Leadership, No Excuses, Power and tagged , , , ,

I could hardly wait to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus in her new life-after-Seinfeld sitcom, Veep.

As a student of women’s relationship with power, I made sure to be curled up in bed for Veep’s 10pm edt HBO premier last night, ready to soak it up and take notes on my equally charged up  ipad.

My excitement deflated minute by minute.

Entertainment Watch’s plot overview is one reason:

Louis-Dreyfus’ Vice President Selina Meyer is a veep without much influence constantly trying to gain some, a ripe premise for comedy.… In the first installment of Veep, we saw V.P. Meyer trying to advance her green initiative with the introduction of cornstarch-based utensils in government offices, a move that irritated (“outrage” being too strong a word to use for anything a Vice President introduces) the plastics lobby.

Now, I know that Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president John Nance Garner (do you even know who he was?) described the job as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” And when Veep Meyer asks her former senatorial colleague what she’s been missing since she left the Senate to take the vice-presidency, the senator replies, “Power?”

As the tension between corn starch versus plastic utensils mounts, Veep receives repeated messages that the White House doesn’t want any mention of anything that could bring down the wrath of Big Oil’s mega lobby. The President himself is never seen or heard—rubbing the wound of Meyer’s perceived powerlessness with sea salt.

But that’s just the beginning of the narrative by which Veep renders the foul-mouthed Meyer less than influence-commanding.

Her self-presentation telegraphs “I am not to be taken seriously.” Would a vice president come to work in sleeveless party dresses, with visible cleavage, hair flopping in her face, the red power suit only worn for purposes of the official photograph?

Dreyfus acknowledged that she was styled after Michelle Obama.

“[My character Selina Meyer] is not as chic as Michelle Obama, but who could be?” Louis-Dreyfus said, explaining further that it was still Obama’s singular style that provided the blueprint for the character’s sexy, yet powerful look, “so we can move it slightly away from the square look — no offense,” Louis-Dreyfus concluded.

They model the first female vice president on the First Lady?

Please!! There’s not one shred of job description comparability, and to imply so is demeaning both to women and to whoever sits a heartbeat from the Presidency.

The entire show makes Selina Meyer look like a Palinesque dunderhead, despite never revealing her political party. Meyer gives away her power in so many ways large and small. And swearing like a sailor while thinking up schemes to cut others down to size is supposed to make her look strong enough to operate in a man’s world? I don’t buy it.

Being a leader whether or not you have the formal power doesn’t require cutting others down. It means first and foremost that you have to act like one.

Here are three ways everyone can use power effectively without being the formal leader:

Value Your Piece of the Puzzle

Everyone in an organization holds a piece of the puzzle, without which the full picture can’t be completed. There’s much more mutuality than we often perceive.

Everybody needs help now and then, even—especially—if they hold the title of President whose job by definition is impossible.

Bonnie McEwan, president of the public interest communications firm Make Waves Not Noise and professor in the Milano Graduate School in New York, told me she advises her students to “view themselves as powerful, in a constructive sense, and understand it in terms of the ability to influence for good.”

McEwan teaches her students to analyze their own personal power bases. She highlights two key sources of power within their control: referent power, the power of personality or presence, and expert power, or their abilities and skills to contribute to the work. Meyer could have a lot of fun in Veep working these sources of power out while demonstrating spunk and leadership.

Deepen Relationships

The world turns on human connections, so it’s not surprising that many experts suggest deepening relationships by getting to know people and their motivations is as key to making things happen regardless of one’s position. People like working with people they like and trust. Coming from what was apparently a highly respected Senate position, Meyer brought plenty of that to the vice presidency.

In their book Influence Without Authority, Adam Cohen and David Bradford write about Nettie Seabrooks, who as an African American and a woman, had more than her share of hurdles to acquire influence at General Motors. Nevertheless, the authors concluded that her capacity for cultivating strong relationships and avoiding self-inflicted relationship traps helped her to be effective far beyond her formal position.

Set an Agenda and Deliver the Goods

When I spoke at the YWCA Tucson’s Women’s Leadership Conference recently, a nurse practitioner approached me with a worried look on her face. “I see where our patient care could be improved significantly,” she said, “But how can I exercise leadership when I’m not the doctor and not the manager?”

It can be frightening to tell the boss something he or she might not want to hear, but if you have your facts organized and present a cogent agenda, I’ll bet you won’t just get the meeting, you’ll be rewarded. And if the information or advice you offer proves to make the team shine, or keeps the boss from stepping into a big pile of —it, you’ll build trust and your own sense of empowerment.

Like the Veep, most of us don’t hold CEO positions during most of our careers. Nevertheless, as McEwan says, “If you see yourself as the leader of your staff rather than as the follower of your boss, you empower yourself to take action. Perhaps you can’t do everything, but you can do something.”

If Selina Meyer took these three tips for leading without formal power, she’d lose the contrived punch line of Veep. But believe me, there’s plenty of Washington absurdity to create a hilariously funny sitcom about a female Vice President without making her look small, mean, and truly powerless.

What was your reaction to Veep? How have you led despite not having formal power?

This article originally ran in a blog post for FORBESWOMAN. Check it out here.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

3 Responses to Memo to Julia Louis-Dreyfus: How Veep Can Lead Without Power

  1. trish adams says:

    Hi Gloria: I have not had the displeasure of watching Veep, because I was working the polls in the Republican primary here in upstate New York today til 9. Sad, because only 29 (about 6% of the registered Repubs) showed up (who could blame them, they think the game is up) — but omg, I love working the polls up here so much. Repubs and Dems get along so well that we all have to keep reminding who is who… “Have you voted yet tonight?” “No, Betty, I can’t, I’m a Dem, remember?” We share stories about the young people and what they need (otherwise known as gossip) and the old folks and how they are doing… otherwise known as social services. And I think, or dream, that we build more community just “sitting” the election that anyone who actually came to vote. Of all the people who came to vote tonight, (all GOP), I count many customers and true friends. It’s really weirdly “true” when you really really get down to the grassroots. The fact that only 29 out of 427 showed up? Shows a real level of disillusionment on the GOP front.

    • Gloria Feldt says:

      Trish, that’s about the lowest turnout I’ve ever heard if. Wow. But then you are in the land where the few remaining moderate Republicsns live. I understand why they are demoralizd but they need to buck up and win their party back, or become Democrats.

  2. Pingback: You Never Really Hear About Mitt Romney’s Ankles | GLORIA FELDT

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