The Emmy nominations were announced yesterday, and The Dropout, the excellent portrayal of the Elizabeth Holmes story, was nominated for outstanding limited series. Amanda Seyfried is wonderful as Elizabeth and is nominated for an Emmy herself. The show is a fascinating window into what happened at Theranos, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it!
We love to watch stories about work—and why not? Work is a huge part of our lives, so naturally we want to see it reflected in movies and on TV. We especially like true stories and real bosses. The people leading the biggest and most successful companies in the country have always commanded our attention and interest—from Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller; to Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Musk. I am well aware that this list is all men. Traditionally, women were not business leaders. Even today they are still woefully underrepresented at the C-suite level, but we’re making progress. From Coco Chanel and Estee Lauder to Oprah Winfrey and Cheryl Sandberg—not to mention the many women like me running companies of all sizes—we’re changing the list.
A Tale of Three Girl Bosses
Which brings me back to Elizabeth Holmes. She is just one of the real-life bosses we watch. Like millions of others, I tuned into the latest season of The Kardashians, in one sense a family of women bosses led by “momager” Kris Jenner. I’m also a big fan of singer and businesswoman, Jennifer Lopez, and I watched her Super Bowl documentary Halftime. There are many reasons to enjoy any show, but these three examples were thought-provoking because I couldn’t help but think about the portrayal of these women as business leaders and the public’s reaction to them.
What makes a good boss? A successful CEO? How do we expect our leaders to behave? What kind of boss do I want to be? I think anyone in a leadership position should ask themselves these things. I look to others for inspiration and answers, starting with my mother and father, who founded ATR, but I also look at other successful leaders. What do these stories tell me about being a woman in charge? The Dropout is certainly a cautionary tale, on many levels. Elizabeth was disrespectful and rude, and also a liar and a cheat, convicted of criminal fraud. A bad boss by any definition! But what about the others?
Well, Kris Jenner has built an empire. She is a visionary trailblazer in the realm of modern brand management and monetizing the 21st century media landscape. She is also often called ruthless and controlling. While watching Jennifer Lopez, I was impressed with how she managed her performance, including the dancers, backup singers, and crew members. I saw someone who collaborated effectively with fellow multi-hyphenate superstar, Shakira, and was able to effectively communicate her vision, uniting the team to understand the goal and create an amazingly memorable performance. It’s a shame that many other people chose to focus on her perceived whining about not receiving an Oscar nomination or the length of time given to perform.
Unfair Perceptions of Men vs Women
None of this is new: men are seen as forceful, women are bitchy; men are shrewd, women are manipulative, and so on. It’s not just women, either. Stereotypes exist for every minority, and they are often the basis for judgment. People look past Elon Musk’s eccentricities and privileged upbringing and label him a genius, but diminish the Kardashians’ accomplishments as being handed to them. Lopez is painted as entitled and thin-skinned. Both Jennifer and Kris are called demanding and unreasonable, rather than passionate and dedicated. Even Elizabeth is more reviled for her behavior than for being a crook. The very persistence of this perception in our culture demands that I think about it. Can my model be to act like successful men? Or even successful women? How will I be judged? And will it be fair? Sadly, too often for women, the answer is no.
Leadership is Evolving
In our post-pandemic world, there is thankfully a great deal of reflection on what being a “good” CEO/boss means, and behavior is being questioned everywhere. Traditional models of everything work-related are being scrutinized and revised. Elon Musk is sometimes called out for being a diva, along with Kris and Jennifer. The Theranos story shows us that Elizabeth was able to fool people in part because she co-opted behaviors and mannerisms that falsely reassured people, tapping into timeworn methods of defrauding investors.
What all this tells me is that the best route is the one I am on: trying to be myself, to be authentic in my role as a leader. I have written about this before. It’s important to be aware that I will be judged by some people, simply because of the way I do and do not act, rather than the actual actions I take or the results that I achieve. I will at times be seen as aggressive, mean, frivolous, or silly. I may be judged for continuing to view Kris Jenner and Jennifer Lopez—and even Elon Musk—as role models. I cannot worry about that. You can’t please everyone, nor should you try.
I can only be me. Instead of trying to change to fit other’s expectations of boss behavior, I will focus on doing my job well; on being fair and ethical and treating everyone with respect. That is the kind of boss I want to be. That is how I will lead my company. How about you?
Want more leadership insights from Andrea Brenholz? Don’t miss out on her new podcast, Unicorn in the Boardroom!