On the flight to Europe I watched the movie, The Devil Wears Prada. We see the travails of young Andrea (evocative of many recent MBA graduates) versus Miranda, the haughty editor of Runway, a fashion magazine. Miranda is, to say the least, a very demanding boss. More colorful words to describe Miranda are at one’s disposal, none of which are appropriate for a professional blog. Is this not someone most seasoned managers have come to know at some point in their careers? The box-office success of this movie hinges on the identification of the audience with the underdog. We have many antecedents of The Devil Wears Prada in the history of cinema: if you at a loss for these, I recommend that you see Patton, Working Girl, and Paper Chase. What most movie reviewers miss is the relevant lesson to be gained about dealing with difficult bosses. What are you to do in the presence of a tyrannical boss? From my own personal experience and that of many students, I offer four points of advice.

  • Rise to the occasion. What may have worked in the past may not work now. Pour on the steam. Work ethic may be decisive. So may be pluck, initiative, and audacity–your attitude is everything. In his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote: “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
  • Orient yourself to action. Surely good evidence and analysis underpin the work of the best bosses. But the chief problem of most bosses is what to do next. You can help the boss by figuring this out in a way that is consistent with best practice and ethical management.
  • Is the larger vision worth your commitment? Great self-sacrifice may make sense in the context of deep values in which you are invested. You need to judge the depth or shallowness of the appeal to your allegiance.
  • Know when to quit. Do what is right. Some demanding bosses will test you by pushing you over the line of generally-accepted ethics and your personal values. Never take a job you aren’t prepared to quit. Some executive jobs are so filled with moral dilemmas that one cannot discern what it means to do the right thing. Sometimes the best you can do is illuminate the right choices at the risk of your own employment.

Much of popular culture and one’s work is essentially an appeal to one’s heart. Is your heart in the right place? Is it in doing great and correct work? You must know when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” A good business school program, and strong set of peers, can help you sharpen your instincts around this. Above all, choose carefully the people you will be with. They will reinforce your moral compass.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 11/16/2006 07:35:15 PM