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Leadership Lessons from Barbie

Please note: this article contains spoilers.

One could be forgiven for thinking that a movie about a doll created in 1959 might be a cynical cash grab by a greedy toy company (looking at you Hasbro). But an innovative take on the familiar fish out of water tale together with a compelling story directed by Greta Gerwig and written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach combined with a brilliant marketing campaign has driven record box office sales. The world is pink and we are all living in it.

The synopsis of the film goes: A Barbie doll living in Barbieland is expelled from the world for not being perfect enough, too eccentric and not fitting the usual mold. She goes on an adventure in the real world and by the time she returns to Barbieland to save it, she has gained the realization that perfection comes on the inside, not the outside, and that the key to happiness is belief in oneself.

On one level, Barbie is about ultimate self-acceptance, but through the lens of leadership this movie is also very much about embracing the chaos of change to create progress as well as the power of choice. As Barbie creator Ruth Handler once said:

Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.

With this thought in mind, allow me to present 5 key leadership lessons gleaned from this crucial film.

  1. Beware the bubble: Stereotypical Barbie and her Barbie compatriots live in the bubble of Barbieland where every day is the same, everyone is happy and positive, and everything is perfect. This is a utopian society where women occupy all the spaces men mostly occupy in the "real world"; from all branches of government to home ownership and all primary occupations such as doctors, physicists, astronauts, and the like. Stereotypical Ken, however, is unhappy with his relationship with Barbie, there is a "Weird Barbie" ostracized for her different appearance to her face (and behind her back), a pregnant Barbie who is glossed over, and a perception that due to Barbie's influence - the real world mirrored Barbieland in all aspects. Leadership Lesson: As comfortable as it can feel to exist in a bubble of the comfortable status quo - leaders understand that comfort leads to stagnation. As the saying goes - when we are comfortable, we aren't learning. Not that we should seek constant disruption, but there is always work to do in any organization and the perception of perfection is rarely true. This is embodied in the principle of Productive Paranoia that the best leaders embrace - meaning that the errors you're able to glean lessons from are those you manage to endure. Leaders skilled at averting downturns and managing chaos inherently understand the volatility of circumstances, anticipating rapid and extreme shifts. They are perpetually engaged in questioning, "What if?" Through prior preparations, the accumulation of reserves, maintaining a safety buffer, limiting risk, and continually sharpening their skills in favorable and unfavorable conditions, these leaders deal with disturbances from a vantage point of resilience and adaptability.

  2. Change is inevitable (even for Barbie): Suddenly in the middle of a dance party, Barbie begins to contemplate death. This leads to a major disruption to her routine and culminates in her becoming flat-footed and gaining cellulite. She visits Weird Barbie who explains that she must sojourn to the Real World to find the person playing with her as this person's thoughts and feelings have opened a portal between Barbieland and the Real World. As she embarks on the journey, she learns that Ken has tagged along, with catastrophic consequences. Leadership Lesson: Before diving headlong into diagnosing a changing situation, adroit leaders seek to understand the context behind the change in terms of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, or ambiguity. Depending on the diagnosis of the context, the level of confidence needed to navigate the change, the correct construct for the change, and even the culture's ability to absorb the change might shift.

  3. Representation matters: In Barbieland, women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and ability types are embraced, seen, and joyous in their lived experiences. In the Real World, the Mattel Senior Executive team is represented by an all-male cohort capitalizing on experiences and perspectives for which they lack understanding (this is the real-life Mattel Senior Executive Team - judge for yourself). They keep Barbie's founder, Ruth Handler in a non-descript kitchen on the seventeenth floor. Upon meeting them for the first time, Barbie enquires as to the whereabouts of the woman CEO of Mattel and receives a rude awakening that the company that conceived her is run by a bunch of clueless Kens. Leadership Lesson: In the modern world, representation matters. It matters to the employees who are crucial to the productivity of the organization. It matters to the customer groups who consume or use the organization's products, services, and solutions. It matters to the communities where these organizations call their homes. Innovation requires insight and insight is derived from embracing different perspectives, backgrounds, and lived experiences. Leaders who don't fight for greater representation in today's society are destined to spin in the undertow while their more progressive counterparts surf the big waves.

  4. Confront brutal facts: Barbie can't understand how women in the real world have not achieved as much progress as her Barbie compatriots in Barbieland. This comes to a head in a scene where she meets the teenage girl she believes has been playing with her in the Real World and this girl is extremely unkind to Barbie and her legacy which includes encouraging a materialistic lifestyle and possessing “unrealistic body proportions.” This exchange coupled with meeting the all-male executives of Mattel, running into her creator Ruth Handler, and returning to Barbieland only to find that the Kens have taken over by introducing the concept of the patriarchy into their society - causes her loses her way and she collapses from the weight of the situation. Leadership Lesson: The night is darkest right before dawn. Only by truly excavating the root cause of a given situation can a leader turn things around. This requires the fortitude to meet facts as they are with no spin and deal with realities no matter how difficult to swallow. Once a situation is diagnosed for what it truly is, the paths out of the mud become much more evident.

  5. Progress is more important than perfection: Barbie is shaken to her core by the dynamic shifts to her world and world view. But due to the intervention of her Real World friends, she and her compatriots are able to reset the status quo established at the beginning of the film - only to smash it again for the sake of true progress. All the characters recognize that until everyone in their societal microcosm achieves equal value no one possesses equal value. As for Barbie herself, she chooses to become human in order to explore more facets of herself than are available in Barbieland. Leadership Lesson: Societal change comes with myriad pressures to align with current norms and trends - but this can often come at the cost of significant organizational disruption. Senior leaders want everything to work and work well and so are often scared by the prospect of incremental progress versus full out transformation. But when faced with uncertainty and ambiguity - iterative, incremental progress is more favorable than remaining stuck in an outdated and outmoded structure. The best leaders can embrace these challenging contextual factors and forge ahead.

I really loved this movie. It was surprisingly deep, relevant, and impactful. The blend of humor, drama, and compelling characters really sucked me in. I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

What other leadership lessons did you glean from the film? Let us know in the comments below. And please give the article a thumbs up if you enjoyed and got anything out of it.

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