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.
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.