5 Leadership Lessons From Olivia Pope
The popular television series Scandal features as its main character the Washington insider and problem-solver Olivia Pope. She is a woman who knows how media, money, wealth, and power converge to work their will inside the Beltway. She is sharp, intelligent, and well-connected: qualities that make her a hero to millions of viewers across the nation and the show one of the most watched on television.
However, it is the leadership attributes of Olivia Pope that have most impressed me, and I think it unfortunate that acts of extraordinary leadership get buried under the political intrigue, sexual tensions, and far-fetched story lines that make the show such a hit.
If you are a professional looking to advance in your career, you should take note of the uttered thought and dramatic action of Scandal’s leading woman. She offers a number of leadership lessons that can be applied to your everyday working life.
The first thing that shines forth from Olivia’s character is the confidence with which she follows her convictions. When it comes to her job, she knows exactly what she believes it is right to do. Many of her actions are morally dubious, but that doesn’t diminish the point of the lesson. Knowing your own mind is essential to good leadership. Leaders must make decisions based on imperfect knowledge, intermittent complications, and unforeseen consequences. Keeping your team and yourself focused on what you know to be the aim of your project will help you overcome the difficulties that arise in pursuit of it. The people in your work group need a governing idea to give them purpose and a calm, sure, and steady mind to guide them. As their leader, it is up to you to provide these things.
Olivia receives a constant flow of clients and commands high fees because she is good at her job. She is in demand because she is competent. As a leader, one of your central tasks is to make the work of your team invaluable to clients and potential clients. A good reputation—a high quality brand—is obtained through flawless execution. If you are to gain the credibility you need to not only grow your business but to be respected by the public, you must make it your business to get the right results. Gaining such credibility makes it much easier to do your job. When people believe that your team knows what it is doing, they will stay out of the way so that they can get on with things. This is one of the most important lessons to be learned from seeing Olivia Pope in action—her clients listen to her because they trust her.
The people who work for you are more than just employees. They are husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. They come from a variety of backgrounds, are connected to a range of social relations, and come with their own personal problems. Although keeping personal problems out of the workplace is an oft-repeated office maxim, it is one that can never be realized. The problems and difficulties of life do not cease to unfold when your people are on the job. One of the most interesting things about Olivia is that she hired her staff not in spite of their troubled pasts but because of them. She gets deeply involved in helping them sort through the respective life messes that each has brought to her firm. The need for plot development aside, this particular habit of hers speaks to a larger leadership lesson. You should always be aware of what’s going on in the lives of the persons in your charge. You must deal with the individual, not the employee; for it is the individual, the whole person, whose mind and body must be fit and focused if work is to get done. It is bad form to nose your way into personal issues uninvited; however, you must make it your business to know when someone on your team is going through a hard time. Such matters must be handled delicately, but you should take the initiative to offer the right support at the right times.
Although teams can be formed by dictate, teamwork is not so easily forged. It is up to you, as a leader, to make it happen. And the best means for doing so is to establish the right conditions. Olivia makes utilizing the strengths of each person on her team one of her main goals. This is the key to unlocking the talents and abilities of individuals in the workplace, which is the way one gets them to work together. We all have certain fields of knowledge and particular kinds of work that we feel most comfortable in handling. A leader understands that most jobs require a combination of skills and competencies, and will know what each person on her team should be tasked with in order to complete the project. Dividing work in this way will give each individual the feeling of being master in his own domain. This will in turn encourage cooperation with others. Your only job will then be to ensure that deadlines are met and that the right work is being done towards the right end. Olivia teaches us that leaders know what each individual on their team can do and is able to harness the value of such abilities.
There is little doubt that Olivia Pope is one of the most aggressive and determined characters on television. Her ruthlessness is refreshing in that it reflects the reality not only of politics in Washington, but in the working world in general. To be shrewd and calculating is nothing to be ashamed of. There has yet to be found a person of success who has not at some point pushed, pressured, cajoled, and coerced to get their way. Ruthlessness is a vestige of survival. As human beings, it is necessary for us to suppress certain instincts associated with it in order to be sociable and to keep up the norms of civilization; but at times, it must be brought to bear to achieve a hard to reach objective. As a leader, you must know when to be ruthless; not for its own sake, but for the sake of your clients and the people on your team who are counting on you. Olivia is always one step ahead of her rivals. She knows well the system in which she works and is therefore able to manipulate it to her advantage. It isn’t necessary for you to break laws, rules, and regulations, nor must you engage in the moral outrages that are sometimes perpetrated by the characters on Scandal. However, you should learn to silence any qualms you may have about making cold, hard, tactical decisions. If you don’t do it, no one else will; and all that you and your team work for will be put in danger.
About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.