Practical Leadership

Leadership By Edna (Mode)

Disney Pixar's Edna Mode
Image credit: Disney Pixar

It’s important for leaders to always be open to learning lessons from unlikely places. As a man who has a great interest in movies, those unlikely places are often on the silver screen. As Freud said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but it doesn’t mean there aren’t some leadership lessons to be had from even the most comedic movie.

On that note, one of my favorite Pixar characters of all time has to be Edna Mode from The Incredibles. As the “Designer to the Supers,” Edna does more than just design clothes…she cultivates an image that translates into who the Supers become, which strikes me a little like one of the roles leaders play when we lead others.  Here’s a few quotes from the movie, followed by their application in a leadership environment.

Yes, words are useless! Gobble-gobble-gobble-gobble-gobble! Too much of it, darling, too much! That is why I show you my work! That is why you are here!

Sometimes leaders seem to believe if they throw enough words into a group of people something is bound to happen. The paradox of communication is barrages of words are usually meaningless and often counterproductive, but the silence is often the same as doing nothing. While inspiring speeches do get people moving, the best way to inspire people is to lead by example. Most times people need to know they are valued enough for the leader to share their work before they’ll fully commit. If for some reason you find yourself leading by soliloquy, then by all means remember people will sometimes follow a talker, but always follow a doer.

I never look back, darling! It distracts from the now.

Leaders don’t get to their positions without self-critique and adjustment based on feedback from those around them, but if you live in the past you won’t be able to be present enough to do the job you have now. Lead for any length of time and you’re bound to make some tough calls. You’re also likely to have armchair quarterbacks second guess your decision; heck, you might even second guess your own decision (particularly if it was a close call). However, there aren’t any do-overs in life. You may or may not have made that same decision again…but you don’t get that choice. Make peace with the pundits in your head and elsewhere and focus on the now.

You can’t! It’s impossible! I’m far too busy, so ask me now before I can become sane.

Sometimes you have to take a job you don’t have the time for, but need to do. It could be the volunteer position at the local charity, or perhaps coaching a youth sports team. Maybe it’s taking on a client who can’t afford your rates, but the work is worthy so you cut them a break and resolve not to make much money on it. Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson once wrote, “But you don’t always / Have to hold to your head / Higher than your heart.” For leaders it means you can’t be an automaton and slave to profit, you have to keep your heart in the game. Put another way: be excellent and successful in your work but don’t be afraid to take the occasional job based on your heart and not your calculus.

No capes!

No, this is not a contradiction to what I just wrote: occasionally listening to your heart doesn’t mean abandoning all reason. Leaders have to learn from experience and lead others to the same conclusion with facts. It may seem odd, but executive leaders make more decisions on emotion than you might think. In the movie, Mr Incredible wanted a cape but Edna was strongly opposed. Her emotionally response wasn’t enough to change his mind, however. Edna had to convince Mr Incredible capes were a bad idea by citing a dozen or so times capes cost a Super their life. After she laid out the facts, he relented. Sure capes look good, but they proved to be very dangerous. Leaders have to know when to say “no” and make those decisions based on facts.

Pull-yourself-together!…Go, confront the problem. Fight! Win!  And call me when you get back, darling. I enjoy our visits.

One of a leader’s many jobs is cheerleader. When an employee or organization hits a snag, they are looking to the leader to encourage them. This is precisely what Edna does in the film. When Helen (“Elastigirl”) starts to lose her composure because she believes her husband (Mr Incredible) is having an affair, it’s Edna who provides the external motivation to jump-start Helen’s own internal resolve. What came next, however, was probably the most important thing: after the “tough love” and “external motivation” Edna shows Helen she cares about her by immediately asking for a follow up. The lesson is leaders can’t ever fail to care for the people we lead. Leaders can’t always say “yes”, and sometimes we have to discipline or even remove employees, but we have to continue to treat everyone respectfully and with concern for their welfare. Leadership is about people, and we can never forget that.

Next time you watch any film, or even The Incredibles, look for the life and leadership lessons to be had among the laughs.

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Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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