The Devil Wears Prada, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway is a case study of the effects in toxic leadership. In the film, Andy Sachs, played by Anne Hathaway, hoping to takes a job as assistant to the dictatorial fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep. She quickly realizes that this job is not for her – she is innocent and contemptuous of the high fashion world. Telling herself that she has to pay the rent and that the job will lead to one that she truly desires, she soldiers on. Gradually co-opted, buys into Priestly’s value system and almost loses her soul.
The film is worth watching, especially for young people starting in their careers. They can expect to encounter a few toxic leaders (and many good ones). By reflecting on it, they can learn how their souls might be lost – or saved – by discerning wise career choices.
At one point Andy’s friends warn her that she is “drinking Kool Aid”. This is a reference to the way the the Reverend James Jones gradually desensitized his followers into committing mass suicide. He held rehearsals, telling his followers to drink “Flavor aid” as test of loyalty, only to announce that it was not poisoned. Eventually 913 people died
This phrase is now used to depict those seemingly harmless compromises that we all make but can gradually deplete our ability to discern right from wrong.
Anne Hathaway convincingly portrays the process by which Andy sells her soul to her boss. She is award of what is happening to her but gradually slips into denial.
The dictatorial, cruel boss is an old story, one that is found in business, government and the church. The US Army was so concerned about toxic leadership that in 2003 Secretary Thomas White asked the Army War College to assess how the Army could effectively detect how to detect “those who might have destructive leadership styles”. Definitions of toxic leaders vary but include
- “apparent lack of concern for the well being of subordinates”_
- interpersonal techniques that negatively affects organizational climate
- conviction by subordinates that the leaders is motivated by personal self-interest”.
Col George Reed reports that virtually every AWC student participating could recall working for a toxic leader.’
The military culture, with its emphasis on authority, makes it harder for people at the top to perceive dysfunctional leadership styles. The evaluation that counts is the Officer Evaluation Report. Unfortunately the writers of OERs often suffer from “CEO disease’ – “near total ignorance about how one’s own mood and actions appear to the organization…” (Click here for an article by Col. George Reed on how the army might lessen the incidence of toxic leadership.)
Young people should be aware that all organizations, being compose of humans, display some level of organizational hypocrisy. Some of this is inherent. As a recent column in Government Executive points out, many organizations are caught in value conflicts. The Federal Aviation Administration is committed to airline safety – but it must make choices consistent with its other goal – keeping airlines in business. Most employees understand this and can tolerate it – until the gap between values and management behavior gets too wide. At that point employees have a choice to make: they might
- Adopt the values of a dysfunctional and hypocritical manager in the hopes of gaining promotions and power
- Attempt to play a prophetic role by calling management to be true to its stated values
- Subvert the organization from within
- Leave for another job
- Serve out their time as cynical “wage slaves’
If Andy Sachs had a spiritual advisor what might she have done to make better choices? In a previous posting, I quoted theologian Frederich Buchner on discerning career choices:
By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a) but if your work is writing cigarette ads, the chances are you’ve missed requirement(b). If, on the other had, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time your bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only surpassed (a), but probably aren’t helping your patents much ether. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
It appears that Andy Sachs had correctly discerned the right choice – except that she could not get a job working for a newspaper. Once she found herself in a toxic situation, how might she have discerned a correct path? This is not simple. Her friends recognized and were hurt by her actions. Only after crises did she sought to return to her original path.
After she found herself in a situation in which the organizational hypocrisy gap was high, how would she (or any of us in a similar situation) find a way out? Here are some links to articles on discernment workplace spirituality that might help:
- Discernment of Spirits in the Corporate World
- On the Job Prayers by William Thomposon
- Spirituality at Work: 10 Ways to Balance Your Life on the Job by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce
A good film and good reading for everyone.