Leadership Lessons We Can Learn From ’90s TV

Rewatch podcasts are exploding as a new generation of consumers is introduced to 30-year-old TV shows. In these podcasts, the stars of programs that were big (or moderate) hits in the early aughts watch each episode and share their recollections about the making of the episode. Sometimes other actors, directors, writers, and creators join the podcasts to share their insights. It is the ultimate indulgence in nostalgia. Not only do people get to watch their favorite shows again, but they also get to share their love / hate experience of the show with others.

And, there is evidence that such indulgences are healthy. Specifically, as Dr. Shira Gabriel’s work on parasocial relationships and Dr. Melanie Green’s work on narrative transportation show, connections to fictional characters and fictional worlds, especially when shared with others, can boost self-esteem and create a sense of connection.

Perhaps it is that need for connection and comfort that has led to my recent dive into the mid-90s juggernaut that was ER. And, just like when I revisited the 1980s through teen movies, my rewatch has revealed to me how this Must-See TV program affected my growth and development as an adult.

Below are two leadership lessons I learned from Weaver, Greene, Lewis, Carter, Benton, Hathaway, and the rest of the cast.

Who Sets the Tone

“You set the tone” is the advice that is famously passed down from Mark Greene to John Carter to Morris as each passed the leadership baton. This advice echoes what most leadership theory shows: leader emotions, values, and actions influence their followers.

When leaders keep it together, followers do too. For example, Vasquez, Niven & Madrid demonstrated when leaders actively regulate their own emotions and attend to their followers’ emotions, their followers perform better. In addition, Zhang, Zhou, & Mao found that when leaders attend to their followers’ emotions by praising moral actions, their followers are more moral in their actions. In other words, leaders establish the workplace culture.

As a young person, I absorbed these words and in all my roles, I have focused on remaining calm in the face of adversity and used this as a guiding principle through the COVID pandemic. I do not know how much impact I actually had from behind a Zoom screen, but I remembered that actions and words have an impact on the overall work environment.

Of course, the practice of handing down this advice in the TV show also echoes a pervasive leadership myth and bias against women leaders. Kerry Weaver, the character with the second-most appearances in the program, who eventually climbs to the rank of Chief of Staff, never receives this same blessing of “setting the tone.”

Kerry was a determined and conscientious woman who had structural power and authority and guided the department through deaths, addiction, and tragedy. However, like most women, her success, high standards, and willingness to enforce rules were seen as character faults and contributed to a lack of likability. Even though she was emotionally stable, smart, consistent, and mission-focused, she was never given credit for “setting the tone.”

Unfortunately, the leadership case presented by ER reflects many women’s real-life experiences. If viewers learned that leaders set the tone, they might also have learned that women aren’t those leaders. Ironically, the actor playing Kerry Weaver, Laura Innes, has gone on to real leadership roles as a successful director.

Those Who Do the Work Know Best

It is well-known among ER fans that Carol Hathaway was meant to die in the pilot. But, after seeing Carol as the eye of the storm for two hours, fans were not ready to let her go. While the big new show was supposed to be about The Doctors, the producers found that the Nurse was the key.

Early in Season 1, Hathaway makes this clear when talking to a hotshot surgeon about a veteran nurse: “Haleh may not be able to cross-clamp an aorta, but she has over 20 years experience in emergency medicine and if you would step off your pedestal maybe you would realize it’s the nurses that make this place run and not you. ”

From that character and the other nurses, I learned the importance of “bottom-up management,” in which people without structural power can still have a great deal of influence on organizational functioning and culture. Indeed, Kellogg and her colleagues have found that in actual medical settings, attempts to change doctor behaviors are more successful when medical assistants are involved.

The same is especially true in today’s workplaces. When managers or supervisors want to improve or re-engineer a process, there is a tendency to want to “think outside the box,” “break until you make it” and “use a 10,000 feet perspective.” And, if people closest to the process are mostly less-educated members of marginalized groups and lower in status, there can be assumptions that they understand less about the “bigger picture.” However, research shows that people high in power are actually less accurate when it comes to predicting how long something will take and how well a process will work.

So, when improving processes or making changes — or even proposing projects — those high in power should listen to and pay heed to the input of those lower in power with a more accurate sense of all the obstacles. As Nurse Hathaway points out, those with more practical experience have a lot to teach the newly minted experts. As I continue in various hierarchies, I try to remember to check in with the people doing the actual work when I think about assigning or changing processes.

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