How media represent and misrepresent leadership: A reader’s questions

July 25, 2015 by Joshua
in Art, Leadership, Relationships

A reader asked for follow-up on how media shows leadership, following three posts from a couple weeks ago—This is not leadership. It makes people think it is and that’s part of why we have poor leaders, part 1; part 2; part 3; and Learning about relationships ruins most movies and TV.

Before the questions, I don’t want to overstate what I know about relationships and how media shows them, so I have to start by saying I’m just sharing views from casual viewing, not a systematic study. I’m not trying to convince, just to share my views. I’m happy to be shown I missed something or that you disagree.

His first question: What did you learn in your personal relationships that led you to see that the media’s portrayals of leadership, and other relationships is a misrepresentation?

I can’t point to any one thing, but I’ll share a few that come to mind.

Leaders are most effective when they put their followers’ interest first—that’s what experience taught me, at least. I don’t see leaders put the team first in dramas. I see dramas pit people against each other. Martin Luther King worked for equality for everyone, not just to help himself. Same with Gandhi. Patton fought for his country, not just for himself, and we see his seeking fame as a fault or weakness. What leader that you hold as a role model do you think was out for him or herself?

Now look at the videos in the first link above. The woman is ostensibly working for her country, but that confrontation isn’t about the country. It’s her beating him. He’s the bad guy. She’s the good guy.

People have complex motivations but dramas seem to simplify people and their motivations. In that confrontation, their relationship has no depth, no consideration of what would happen after such intense, win-at-all-costs emotions. In the fantasy of the movie, I guess the guy does what she wanted him to and yields to her, argument over. If it happened outside a movie script, they’d have to resolve the conflict.

Personal relationships are hard and complex. The media makes them easy and simple. In personal relationships, you have to deal with consequences, many unintended. The media resets them all the time.

His second question: How is TV misrepresenting nearly all relationships?

I had an epiphany watching Breaking Bad once. Until then, I enjoyed it. After, I didn’t.

I don’t remember the details, but the main character had to make a hard decision. He made the choice one no one would make, like to kill someone or risk getting killed himself, or something like that. It was dramatic, and if you suspended disbelief, compelling. Then I realized the show asked me to suspend the same disbelief the same way, or nearly so, over and over. As I wanted to watch more, I realized I didn’t want to watch because I learned more about being human, about myself, or something valuable to me. I felt hooked, like eating potato chips. I didn’t enjoy it, I just couldn’t stop.

This scene from the movie Ransom, was basically the same. A father risks his son’s life and health by threatening a kidnapper. No one would make that choice. It’s dramatic. It makes you wonder how it will resolve. When you watch it, ask yourself if the people writing it were exploring some part of being human or figuring out what would hook an audience:

It seems clear to me that they wrote the movie to provoke simple emotions than to help you grow as a person.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being entertained. I find these portrayals entertaining, but scenes like these undermine their artistic truth by presenting them as plausible, not add to them. I’d just as soon watch a screwball comedy with no pretense of realism.

Here’s a similar scene in Crimson Tide. After seeing enough scenes like it, I no longer see it as an exploration of what might happen if two submarine officers disagree, but more as using a submarine context to provoke emotions of sympathy (for the good guy, Denzel), outrage (at the bad guy, Hackman), and so on.

These movies seem engineered like roller coasters, not composed like art. I like roller coasters, but you can only ride them so many times before you get bored of them. I love watching Nicholson bellowing “You can’t handle the truth!” and attacking Tom Cruise, but after enough similar scenes at similar moments, it loses its importance, believability, and authenticity.

I haven’t gotten bored of personal relationships. In fact, like art, building and exploring human relationships has become more interesting the more I learn about them, the opposite effect from Breaking Bad.

His third question: What expectations and appreciations do we miss out on when we allow ourselves to soak up all this misinformation?

I find these movies and TV shows lead many people to believe their lives are missing something or should have that kind of drama. I think they lead people to think leadership commonly involves dramatic confrontation and that using authority helps resolve conflict.

I think these portrayals lead us to miss out on nuances that make art art and relationships interesting. We don’t develop appreciation for others. Or skills for ourselves.

I hope this post answered your questions and didn’t make me look too high and mighty. I’m not saying the dramas are bad, or even that I won’t watch them, only that I’m losing interest in them.

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