We are what we watch? Feeding leadership hungers with TV and movies

So what are you binge watching on Netflix, or following on cable this month? It may be your unconscious is giving you clues about your leadership hopes and dreams. It pays to pay attention to the ‘entertainment’ you’re drawn to. You may find clues to your aspirations and values, even in the most escapist shows.

ncisFor example, I’m watching NCIS, a cop show about Navy Investigators. It’s gory and explicit, with dead bodies shown in the field and on the forensic slab, and like all police investigation shows, it makes the world seem like a place where violence and crime dominate most relationships. The team of investigators are all eccentric, brilliant, and passionately dedicated.

I watched a few shows a year or so ago, and gave it a thumbs down. So, why would this media comfort food be so compelling lately? The format is a classic murder-committed to murder-solved formula (very predictable!), with enjoyable eccentrics and playful dynamics (fun, I’ll admit). But that’s not what makes it my latest irresistible down-time popcorn. I think the main reason I’m so addicted is that the leaders in NCIS are all brilliant government employees who uphold integrity and justice above all.

At a time in the U.S. when integrity and justice in the top levels of government are at best contested, and at worst disregarded, NCIS portrays a world where government workers are highly skilled, moral, and care deeply about American values and service. Their patriotism is only matched by their commitment to each other as a family and a team.

There are two leadership hungers NCIS feeds for me, one personal, one philosophical.

First, it feeds my own desire to work closely with others in a co-creative team that honors the gifts of each team member. I’ve always been drawn to collaborative leadership opportunities, and when I can, work with individuals and groups that stretch my skills and connect me with new ideas and networks. I’ve held on to jobs sometimes too long because I loved the teamwork, and let go of plum jobs because there was no collaboration. In TV shows, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “scoobies” to my current fave, Gibbs’ family, it’s a formula that mirrors my ideal leadership situation.

Second, it feeds my philosophical desire to see the U.S. government and our representatives holding high standards, both legally and morally. Integrity is comforting. As a citizen/follower, it reassures me that those who need care get care, and those who are elevated to service hold the law and our safety at the heart of their choices. Although some may feel comfortable with the rapid changes in our system since the last election, I am dismayed when I look at leaders’ disregard for legal precedent, common courtesy and constitutional tradition. NCIS paints a fictional world where corruption is punished and hard work in the service of others is rewarded, all in the name of constitutional protection. It feeds a need starved by the actual news from the top.

So what fictional world is feeding your leadership hungers lately, personally and philosophically? Once you identify the source of comfort and inspiration, I’d recommend three steps to strengthen your leadership presence in the real world.

  1. Find the time and energy to offer your leadership gifts in the same way as the fictional characters you love. In the real world, it’s harder to do magic like Harry Potter, or solve a crime in 48 minutes. But there’s a way to translate inspiration into action. In my case, I’m getting a clear signal that I need to connect with others in a meaningful new collaborative project.
  2. There’s nothing wrong with escaping into fantasy for a bit. But if you’re unhappy with the way something is turning out in the world, identify one step you can take to change the world for the better. I’m stepping up to local politics, a place where my voice has more power, and speaking up for integrity in environmental policies in my county.
  3. In the meantime, watch more consciously! Instead of numbing out, look for leadership lessons in your reactions. It may be you’ll find a clue to explain why your co-worker is driving you crazy, or give you a solution to a dilemma you’re facing as a leader or follower.

Our brains experience fictional worlds as reality, with a pinch of salt. We suspend our disbelief, but then we dive into a fantasy as detailed, and sometimes more satisfying than our lives. It’s a magical “what if” that transports us to a cleaner, more resolved place that has a real effect on our mindset. If we sleep through the imaginary journeys we’re using to feed our leadership hungers, then we lose a chance to jump start better leadership in our lives.

One comment

  1. […] Identifying which fictional world is feeding our leadership hungers, personally and philosophically,…Sometimes that awareness can be a little uncomfortable, but it’s always useful, and often intriguing. […]


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