I’VE MET A LOT of big-name media people over the years, but one I’ve missed is Anna Wintour, the famous (some would say infamous) and feared editor of Vogue magazine.
The British-born Wintour is known for a lot of things – including being a terribly difficult person to work for – but she’s also the inspiration for the character played so memorably by Meryl Streep in the film The Devil Wears Prada.
Here’s how the entry on Anna Wintour’s Britannica.com biography described it:
“The longtime editor in chief of American Vogue magazine, Wintour became one of the most powerful figures in fashion. … (She is) also known for her imperious demeanour, which was heightened by her propensity to sport dark sunglasses.
The Devil Wears Prada, the best-selling novel by Lauren Weisberger that … was adapted into a popular film starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, is an account of the comic travails of one of the personal assistants of the fictional fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly. The Priestly character was widely believed to have been a caricature of Wintour, for whom Weisberger once worked.”
All of this came to mind because of a recent BenefitNews.com article titled Don’t lead like me: What I learned from my tyrannical mentor (and Meryl Streep). It’s not what I expected from a publication on employee benefits management, but you sometimes find the most interesting articles in the most unexpected places.
Here’s the gist of the BenefitsNews article:
“Have you seen “The Devil Wears Prada,” or maybe even read the book? Perhaps you’re more familiar with the saying, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing?”
It took me nearly a decade to realize that I was modeling my leadership and management style after a leader who was the mirror image of Meryl Streep in this 2006 movie. I was taught by my mentor that we must win at all costs, that money is everything, that second place is just first place loser.”
There is more to life than the win-at-all-costs
A guy named Eric Silverman, the founder and owner of benefits firm Voluntary Disruption, is the author. He tells how he tried to model himself after the Meryl Streep character who is modeled on real-life editor Anna Wintour, and what he learned from all of it.
It’s an interesting story worth reading, and he distills it down to this:
“Here’s what I can be proud of: I stood up for myself and realized there is more to life than the win-at-all-costs style I was taught.
Here’s what I’m not so proud of: When the collective team of incredible human beings that I recruited, trained and developed started calling me out on my own personal nonsense, I immediately got defensive and thought they were the problem. I couldn’t recognize that the reflection in the mirror had morphed into that of my mentor. I was the problem, not my team.”
I’m sure there are many managers who can identify with Eric Silverman’s story. I also know there are a lot of people who enjoyed the book and movie version of The Devil Wears Prada.
Life lessons from The Devil Wears Prada
In fact, my good friend and former Martha Stewart HR Vice President Ron Thomas (he was a guest on Fuel50’s Talent Experience podcast) loves the film and wrote an article for me about it back when I was editor of TLNT. He wrote:
“(The Devil Wears Prada) has HR footprints all over it, from branding, recruiting, employee engagement, management dysfunction, succession planning, leadership, mentorship. … However, the reality is that this type of company, if run with that same style today, would probably be on its last legs. …
This movie was a conglomerate of all aspects of human resources. There were bright spots throughout, but it also wallowed in the depth of a dysfunctional organization.
“The Devil Wears Prada” should be a ‘must view’ for new college graduates stepping into the world of work. Yes, there are a lot of great lessons that a newbie could get from this.”
Ron’s right, of course, and so is Eric Silverman. They both zeroed in on the long-term dangers of being an overbearing manager. Such a leader can destroy a solid company just as much as any other business issue can.
Perhaps Anna Wintour has taken some comfort over the years in how she helped make so many people recognize this. Given the long lifespan of popular movies, I expect her life lessons will continue to be taught to others who discover the film for many years to come.