If you have recently watched the Barbie movie, you’re likely already aware that Greta Gerwig’s creation is so much more than just a kids’ film. It’s a super pink, campy romp through serious subjects such as feminism, capitalism and the nature of autonomy. Here at Bryter Work, we couldn’t resist taking the leadership lessons that we picked up from the film, and exploring how we felt that they applied to our own experiences.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, and are planning to, maybe read this article afterwards, since it contains some minor spoilers!
“Do you guys ever think about dying?”
So apparently this is not the thing to say mid massive-choreographed-dance-with-all -of-your-Barbies-and-Kens. Cue the music stopping and everyone looking a bit shocked and nervous. Although it was super awkward, and went against expectations, Barbie had to have the courage to be vulnerable and let people know that this was truly what she’d been thinking about.
Her vulnerability and courage to tell the truth, garnered Barbie support from those around her. In my journey, I’ve found it an interesting and sometimes tricky balance. One where I share challenges and my feelings with those around me, while still taking an attitude that problems are there to be figured out and figure-out-able. The relationships with the teams that I’ve built and the colleagues that I’ve collaborated with have run deep and long term as a result. And Barbie gives us a great reminder that sharing enough of your humanity as a leader helps to build high trust, supportive environments.
“I have no difficulty holding both logic and feeling at the same time. And it does not diminish my powers. It expands them.”– Lawyer Barbie
Barbie Leadership Lesson 1: Barbie shows us that there’s strength in vulnerability and that saying the thing that needs to be said might be awkward at first, but it’s also necessary.
“We sell dreams, imagination, and sparkle. And when you think of sparkle, what do you think of next? Female agency”
– Mattel CEO
It’s the fact that we live in a world where feminine imagery and feminine coded items (e.g. pink, glitter, high heels, dresses) are seen as frivolous, or lacking in intelligence, that makes this joke work. When the ideals of femininity are so enmeshed with the perception of lower ‘value’, the Barbie movie playfully brings us to pause and consider our unconscious biases around femininity and our unconscious ingrained views of women who embrace it.
As female leaders at Bryter Work, we are in a space where we can bring our femininity (and also lack of!) to work and not be constrained by stereotypes. Outside of the Bryter Work bubble, we recognise that many of us in business still face these stereotypes and challenges. And so Barbie leads the way in gently helping to question these. A lot can be learned from the Barbie movie approach to playful rejection of these narratives, as well as its unapologetic fun and feminine look, while still radiating intelligence and poignance.
Barbie Leadership Lesson 2: Just because it’s feminine or playful doesn’t mean that it can’t be serious too. And addressing biases doesn’t have to be confrontational.
“Either you’re brainwashed, or you’re weird”
Although Barbie can be criticised for setting homogeneous beauty standards for millions of women, Barbie would have been stuck without getting the most diverse views. Weird Barbie is the Barbie who got played with too hard. She lives in her Weird Barbie house with the ‘cancelled’ dolls (Earring Magic Ken, Sugar Daddy Ken, Growing Up Skipper, Video Barbie). These dolls know much more about the ‘real world’, as a result of the world’s reaction to them. This special insight means that they don’t get caught up in the group-think exhibited elsewhere in Barbie Land. And Barbie can trust them to give the advice that she needs to overcome her problems.
It’s a perfect example of why great leaders don’t surround themselves with people exactly like themselves. In addition to this, they see value in the perspective of someone who has faced marginalisation and might be considered an ‘outsider’. Arguably Weird Barbie shows the greatest leadership qualities in the movie. She holds a non-judgemental space for decision-making, and can always be relied on for her homemade maps, diagrams, sense-making analogies and no-nonsense advice.
Barbie Leadership Lesson 3: Great leaders seek out diverse ranges of opinions. They recognise that unique insight comes from listening to marginalised voices. They also are happy to ‘own’ their weirdness, for the same reasons!
“It is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever.”
In Barbie Land, everything is perfect. And so are the Barbies. At least, that’s how they perceive themselves and their world. So, when things begin to change (cold showers, cellulite, an awareness of mortality, flat feet), it is painfully uncomfortable and unsettling. In fact, when Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) reveals her flat feet, the other Barbies gasp, scream and even start to retch. This comically extreme reaction echoes the relatively normal feelings of anxiety and resistance that most of us have to change.
Leaders aren’t immune to these feelings either. In fact, when she sees what the Kens have done to Barbie Land, Barbie shouts “I HATE change!” and flings herself hopelessly on the ground. However, Barbie is equipped with resilience, excellent communication skills, and a supportive coach (in the form of Weird Barbie), along with her own courage and curiosity, tenacity and emotional intelligence. Thus allowing her to not only manage change effectively but also guide and mentor others through change. Thanks to her, Ken now believes that he is “Kenough”.
Barbie Leadership Lesson 4: Resistance to change is normal. The best leaders use empathy, honesty, curiosity and kindness liberally (including being kind to themselves)!
“Why didn’t Barbie tell me about Patriarchy?”
It’s hard to avoid, but Barbie really asks some interesting questions about feminism. These got us thinking about structures of power and inequality in business and the workplace.
The Patriarchy in the real world doesn’t work as simply as Ken imagines it should do (he’s sadly prevented from performing an appendectomy in the real world, even though he’s a man with a clicky pen!). From this, It might be easy to think that feminism ‘has won’ due to the fact that it’s not enough to just be a man to take positions of power or influence.
In Barbie Land, an extreme opposite power dynamic of Matriarchy prevails. The Kens at the start of the film had only been created for the benefit of Barbie and so lack autonomy and purpose. They therefore fight and bicker with each other as a result of their insecurities. When the Kens take power, the balance swings fully in the opposite direction. The power is taken to the exclusion of all the Barbies (and Allan, the least Alpha of all the male dolls). When the Barbies eventually take the power back, they once again exclude the Kens from their democratic process.
These uncomfortable narratives play with the persecutor/victim roles, never allowing the toy characters to find a path outside of these two positions. The one exception is Stereotypical Barbie, who opts out by choosing her own destiny. Although the Kens were happy to hand back control and power to the Barbies, it left them back in the childlike position of lacking autonomy and basic rights.
Movie vs. reality
However, as the real world showed Ken, the reality of patriarchy is far more nuanced than the simplified version of the power dynamics of patriarchy vs matriarchy played out in Barbie Land. As Barbie sadly notes in the film, the real world wasn’t what she expected it to be. Her creator Ruth agrees “It never is. And isn’t that marvellous”.
As a female leader, but also as a leader wanting better representation and equality for marginalised groups, we can sometimes get disenfranchised by what we see as a lack of progress in feminism in life, business, or any other cultural shift that we might want to see.
In the real world, we just have to listen to the heartbreaking and personal song written by Billie Eillish for the Barbie Movie: What Was I Made For? The message of the song makes clear that our culture is still commodifying young women like Ms Eillish, who receive criticism for presenting too masculine, or too feminine from both men and women. It is still hard for women to express themselves authentically, and not just for the pure appeasement of others, without being objectified, criticised, mocked or harassed.
And yet despite this, Barbie shows us that there is hope. That this human experience of getting to know ourselves and each other is a beautiful and painful part of the important journey that is life. And that life is precious because of its imperfections. Not just despite them.
Barbie Leadership Lesson 5: Problems are rarely totally black and white. And they rarely have clear answers or a perfect end destination. Being a leader is about having the wisdom to find the beauty in the human experiences of discovery, and the courage and resilience to keep trying to make things better.
One last leadership lesson…
Leadership can be tough. And lonely. Crafting a style that feels true to you and developing your leadership qualities and skills can be a real challenge.
Bryter Work’s experienced and empathetic coaches can help with your leadership development and professional identity, coaching you to become the best (and most authentic) leader you can be.
And whether you want to wear hot pink heels or rollerblades, sneakers or slippers, that’s a-okay.