3 Leadership Lessons From Tina Fey
by Scott Danielson
In real life, Tina Fey is an Emmy winning writer, actress, and producer. This can be difficult to imagine given that her 30 Rock character, Liz Lemon, is completely clueless, especially when it comes to leadership. Once I began listening to Fey’s autobiographical audiobook, Bossypants, imagining Fey as a strong leader was nearly impossible. The more I heard Tina speak about her experiences, the more it seemed like Liz Lemon was a conduit for Fey’s personality.
Despite describing her own book as “tales of cowardice”, Fey still offers some valuable leadership advice she learned from Saturday Night Live (SNL) producer Lorne Michaels. While these tips might seem TV specific, Lorne’s advice is applicable to leaders everywhere.
#1 Leadership Is Often About Discouraging Creativity
Considering the level of creativity required for a show like SNL, the idea that Lorne Michaels would turn down creative ideas seems counter-intuitive. That is, until Fey explains. One sketch, for example, called for a plain muffin on a white plate from the props department. Instead of accepting the simple design, the props department went wild and made a giant Santa muffin. Lorne then had to explain that what the scene needed was a simple muffin on a white plate.
Lorne’s advice is a call for balance. If your office is full of creative people, you will have to temper their wild ideas and maintain a practical point of view. On the other hand, an office that focuses entirely on productivity and ignores innovation will stagnate and fall behind. It’s up to the leader to maintain a sense of equilibrium.
#2 “We’re Ordering Dinner”
Using herself as an example, Tina explains Norm’s gentle style of critique. During an anthrax scare at NBC, shortly after September 11th, Fey happened to be working in the building. When the story broke on TV, she escaped to her home, presumably to live out her final hours. There was no indication that anything was wrong with her. A couple of hours later she received a call from Lorne: “We’re all here…we’re ordering dinner.”
As Fey is quick to point out, Lorne never said she was acting irrationally or told her she was being stupid. He simply offered her a guilt-free way to get back to work (She readily accepted).
Shaming your employees after truly foolish behavior is overkill. Unless, they’re completely oblivious, the guilty ones are already busy criticizing their actions. Instead, throw them a lifeline. Let them know their mistakes are forgivable and they’ll be able to rejoin the group without judgment.
#3 When Hiring, Mix Harvard Nerds With Chicago Improvisers. Then Stir
Every workplace needs a diverse staff, especially the writers’ room of a sketch comedy show. Lorne Michaels has perfected this technique by grabbing the best from the famous Second City improv company in Chicago and comedy writers from Harvard University. The end result gives Saturday Night Live its famous blend of ridiculous characters and clever satire. Fey has followed suit in 30 Rock’s writer’s room by filling it with the aforementioned Improvisers and Nerds and even “two dirtbags.”
If the success of both shows is any indication, a diverse staff is not only crucial for a balanced office but also diverse ideas. Fey explains what SNL would be like with nothing but Second City alumni:
“To generalize with abandon….If you have nothing but improvisers, the whole show would be loud drag characters named Vicki and Staci screaming their catchphrase over and over, ‘YOU KISS YOUR MOTHER WITH THAT FACE!?”
Just like a successful TV show, a good company needs employees who balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Though her signature character may blurt out phrases like "aw nerds" and "blerg," Tina Fey's life in showbusiness has given her some unique and powerful insights about leadership. So learn from Lorne, just like Tina did, and start leading more effectively!
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Imagine Provided By Michelle Wright