For millions of faithful fans, Thursdays at 10 p.m. just won’t be the same. With the conclusion of the second season of Scandal, we will have to survive 6 months, void of our weekly dose of the lies, deceit, deception, and political scandal that Shonda Rhimes has us hooked on. So what are we to do?
The show is brilliant, not just because it’s extremely entertaining, but because there are significant leadership lessons we can learn from Olivia Pope, the show’s protagonist and the head of Olivia Pope & Associates— affectionately known as OPA to us Scandalites. Like many leaders, Pope fixes hazardous situations on a daily basis, and ensures her clients are set-up for success. As a political fixer, she operates in a fast-moving, constantly changing environment, not unlike the corporate arena that many of you business types operate within on a daily basis.
In 60 minutes, Pope yields results faster and works her way out of tighter situations than any other leader I’ve seen. Sure, she is fictional, but both Olivia Pope’s leadership prowess and her shortcomings are ripe with lessons that you can incorporate in your leadership toolbox immediately.
So Gladiators, let’s go to work:
She’s transparent on vision and strategy: Like most leaders, Olivia Pope’s success is only achieved with the contributions of her team. Few leaders have real talent for aligning their people around a shared vision and strategy. For many, the pathway forward is so esoteric, or worse, closely guarded that their people couldn’t make meaningful contributions if they wanted to. By whiteboarding the who, what, where, how of the client engagement (i.e mug shots and documents on the wall), she shares all the details, her observations, and gets her team aligned with the situation, the next steps, and the ultimate goal. In the end, each team member feels confident they can pursue the strategy with the capability to anticipate Pope’s vision.
She genuinely solicits feedback: At some point we’ve all attended a “strategy session” where the group leader allegedly seeks input from the team, but a few minutes into his monologue it becomes clear that he simply seeks a rubber stamp approval of his fully baked plan, because after all, he is the smartest guy in the room. If not the rubber stamp, a silent nod will suffice. Pope doesn’t ask; her approach is more like a peer-to-peer discussion, one person seeking the perspective of the others. Her team feels valued, that their input is essential to furthering the goal, and that it’s important to share all their thoughts because if they do not, a critical, even game-changing, detail may be missed.
She maintains hierarchy while granting permission to act: The hierarchal structure at OPA is clear and respected. The buck stops with Pope and she makes the final decisions. However, her people are empowered to take actions and she does not micro-manage. At OPA, speed and agility are paramount, and this isn’t unlike most organizations wishing to sustain any measure of competitive advantage. Pope’s “gladiators in suits” are carefully selected, each provides unique expertise, and smartly, she creates space and provides the necessary freedom for them to use this expertise. Her team knows they have the green light to operate in the best interest of the client and thus they consistently go above and beyond the call of duty.
Her consistency begets trust but… Putting it mildly, Olivia Pope’s people would literally run through walls for her, often putting their own lives at risk. They do this willingly because she has earned their trust over time, literally saving their lives in some instances. Moreover, they trust her because they know her. They know her because they believe her to be unapologetically, the same Olivia Pope— 24/7/365.
However the same trust that is so hard to earn can be vaporized in a nanosecond. Maintaining secrets that she won’t own up to has compromised the very trust that is foundational to the relationship Olivia Pope has with her team. For example, when Quinn realizes the role Olivia played in—hold onto your hats, non-Scandal-watchers—her boyfriend’s murder, in Quinn’s being framed for this boyfriend’s murder, and Quinn’s subsequent kidnapping by future fellow-gladiator, Huck—she naturally begins to question her allegiance to OPA. Can you blame her?
Authenticity is her greatest asset. She uses it —to a point: Pope shares nearly all the details of what she’s doing, except for the essential detail she continues to hide – you know, that little ongoing extramarital affair with the leader of the Free World. True, leaders rightfully must be judicious with the personal information they share. However, when your personal life not only threatens your livelihood, but also the well-being of your team (as is the case with Pope and her team), you’re risking more than your reputation. When your team begins to even suspect that you’re keeping secrets, they begin to question their trust in you. Who are you really? Pope’s secrets are on the verge of eroding both the carefully cultured team dynamic and the organization that saves lives and fights on behalf of those that can’t fight for themselves. Remember back in 2005 when Boeing replaced then-CEO Harry Stonecipher (a married man) after emails uncovered his relationship with a female executive at the company? A point not to be missed with this scandal is that Stonecipher wasn’t removed for having an affair, but for violating Boeing’s code of conduct.
Despite her numerous displays of exemplary leadership, our Chief Gladiator is now caught between a rock and a hard place due to foibles in her personal life, and a leader compromises both her positional and relational authority when she no longer holds the respect and trust of her people. For some leaders, sharing your authentic self – strengths and weaknesses – can endear you to your people.
Olivia Pope’s closely guarded secret has caused her pain and anguish, but now that it’s at risk of being revealed, she’s on the verge of ruin. In the previous episode, Pope told Harrison, “I’m not your client,” but if her secret comes out, Olivia will likely find herself in a situation that she alone can’t fix. Unfortunately for some leaders, this realization occurs when a situation is beyond repair. Will her team abandon her in disgust, or step in to save her? As the best cleanup crew in town, they just might be her only hope. Oh, 10 p.m. can’t come fast enough!
Shaun Spearmon is an engagement leader at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. He works with clients on leadership competency strategy and has extensive experience leading teams in strategic planning, process improvement, and business development in both the public and private sectors.