What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ teaches us about power and engagement

“Now I’m awake to the world.  I was asleep before.  That’s how we let it happen.  When they slaughtered congress, we didn’t wake up.  Then they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution.  We didn’t wake up then either.  They said it would be temporary.  Nothing changes instantaneously.  In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you even knew it.”

This monologue sets the scene for an episode of the recent television drama ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, attempting to explain how the leaders of the Republic of Gilead came to be in power.  It suggests that they gained control by making small changes, bit by bit, until nothing was the same and they had so much hold over everything, there was no choice but to do what they said.

In the story, a religious dictatorship has taken control and its leaders introduce a strict regime within which, women’s rights are removed and a caste system introduced.  One morning, the main character ‘Offred’ has her debit card declined when attempting to buy a coffee.  She later discovers that this is because ‘they changed the law’ and women are no longer allowed to have assets.  Instead, they find that their money and any estate must be handed over to their male next of kin.

We are told that there is a serious problem with infertility in the Republic of Gilead and so fertile women are sent to families with standing in the regime where they find themselves forced to bear children for the family.  When the women are taken by the regime, they lose their identity.  Offred is literally ‘of Fred’ and we see in the programme that when a handmaid is reassigned, their name changes according to the man they belong to.

Children are taken away and second marriages are dissolved.

The dramatization brings to life the famous book by Margaret Atwood which was published in 1985.  Since its release, the book has won a number of awards and is a standard course text for English Literature students across Britain and maybe even further.  What makes the tale so chilling is the knowledge that when Atwood wrote the novel, she committed to only writing things that have actually happened in the world.  It’s quite scary to think that what we see in this show is or has been a reality for some.

The novel tells a cautionary tale of totalitarianism and setting it in Trump’s America makes it scary to watch as it feels conceivable that civilisation could crumble, allowing power to settle in the wrong hands.  As we watch the President’s first year, we see many rising up against a perceived threat to civil liberties and growing unrest makes many fearful for the future.

So how on earth can anyone gain so much power that they can make people live as we see in Gilead?

It begins with the construction of ‘them and us’ using negative for ‘them’ and positive for ‘us’, creating an enemy which people can easily be turned against.  The President’s travel ban is a good example of this as he sought to ‘protect the nation from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals’.  It created unrest across America and uneasiness amongst those ‘foreign nationals’ who live in the US and those who value diversity.  He has also been criticised for comments about other groups such as women (see Trump sexism tracker) and those with disabilities.

Those who agree with these views take strength from such comments and show how easy it is to ‘us’ against ‘them’ as we saw during the election campaign and more recently in Charlottesville.   Of course what these perpetrators don’t realise is in a culture where this kind of power has taken hold, no one is safe.

One of the key techniques in a totalitarian regime is encouraging people to turn each other in when they are not respecting the regime or its leader.  We only have to look to Nazi Germany, communist China and North Korea to see that a central part of retaining power is encouraging people to report those who have done something wrong.  Even a small misdemeanour can lead to death.  Punishing those who have done wrong and rewarding those who turned them over is the perfect way to reinforce the status quo.  An example of this is the so called ‘slut-shaming’ which encourages women to rat each other out and expose others who are then subject to further abuse.

I’m sure it isn’t just me that wants to hold on to my freedom and so the most important thing is to pay attention to what’s going on in the world and not be asleep while things are changing beyond your control.

Have you been watching The Handmaid’s Tale?  Let us know what you think it teaches us about leadership in the comments below.

 

3minuteleadership.org

 

Halloween, fancy dress and the ‘Trumpkin’

As Halloween approaches, many of us will be planning for parties and wondering what costume to wear. The festival marks the religious feast of ‘all hallows’ eve’ which is more commonly known in Christian communities as ‘all souls day’. It’s a day to remember the dead which is why it is linked to ghosts, ghouls and all things spooky.

It’s not clear whether this day has arisen from harvest festivals and pagan roots or if it was Christian all along. Celtic customs and beliefs are said to have had an influence – for example, the Welsh used to hold a festival called ‘calan gaeaf’ which was held on the 31st October to celebrate the beginning of winter. However it came about, this is typically the time of year that we enjoy activities such as pumpkin carving, apple bobbing, trick or treating and costume parties.

You might wonder what Halloween has to do with leadership but there a number of things that we can learn from this celebration of the supernatural.

1. Be yourself – Halloween is about dressing up in a clever disguise. This is great for a night of fun but if you are constantly pretending to be someone else as a leader, this will be noticed by others and impact your credibility, hindering your ability to develop trust in relationships. It takes a lot of energy to pretend so the mask could slip, revealing you as a fake. The best thing you can do as a leader is be yourself – even if you are a little ghoulish! People will respect you more for letting your imperfections show.

2. Be vulnerable – Dressing up in a silly outfit and leaving the house takes confidence. Leaders should have the confidence to be vulnerable. This is the very heart of authenticity as it takes confidence to reveal a part of you that might usually prefer to keep to yourself. Your team will respond well to you as an individual if you are able to reveal a fun centre and allow yourself to dress up in a Halloween costume.

3. Be engaging – an engaged team works harder because they want to achieve and succeed. The great thing about Halloween is that many people do engage and participate. If you can bring in a little Halloween magic into the workplace, you can develop a high performing team.

4. Be fun! – I’ve written about this before and I believe in it fully. Having fun for me is a central part of leadership. I want my team to enjoy their work which means finding the fun in the job that must be done (remember Mary Poppins?). If people enjoy what they do, they will do more of it and I certainly want my team to do as much as they possibly can! Fun is a great morale booster so celebrate every festival and allow them to loosen up from time to time.

A life size ‘Trumpkin’

 

Finally, another Halloween trend taking the U.S. by storm is the creation of a ‘Trumpkin’. In the run up to the election, pumpkins everywhere are being carved in to replicas of the man himself. We also saw a few carved Clintons during our recent tour of Massachusetts. Perhaps this is a trend we can adopt here in the UK with imitations of Theresa May, Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn. If you do decide to recreate your favourite leader in a pumpkin fashion, be sure to share with me on Twitter @ChristineB_OS

You may also be interested to read my post Leadership is… which considers the importance of fun in leading others.

3minuteleadership.com

How Donald is trumping Hillary in the ultimate leadership race

As I sit in the airport lounge waiting to head home from the US, there is yet more analysis of Clinton and Trump being broadcast ahead of the final presidential debate which takes place tonight. The election is a hot topic which has been evident everywhere we have visited on our trip and a regular topic of conversation as we’ve travelled around Massachusetts.
In terms of the analysis, I have been most interested in the discussion around non-verbal communication and what that means for the leadership contest. How these candidates present themselves is probably even more important than the policy positions they are trying to promote. Conversely, women are even more likely to be subject to analysis on these terms, judged not only on what they say but also what they wear and how they come across.

So what can we say about Clinton and Trump from their performance within these debates?

Watching the third and final debate, what struck me first was the way they try to convey power and authority. As I watched them both at their lecterns, it brought to mind a TED talk I saw a while back by Amy Cuddy which explains how the power pose can increase testosterone. What I’ve noticed since then is that men tend to naturally take a bigger position when they speak. They might put their hands on their hips or elbow on the chair next to them so they take up more space. On the other hand, women quite often remain quite small with their hands on their lap and their legs crossed.

Watching the debates, I noticed exactly this.  Trump is already much bigger that Clinton and he builds on this by holding on to either side of the lectern which communicates strength and power. Clinton has her arms in side the lectern and hands together. What I get from her stance is more of a feeling of grounding. She is already smaller and stands steady and confident as she tries to communicate that she is reliable and grounded.

Commentators in the US are saying that Clinton isn’t doing well when it comes to authenticity. Watching her in action, I can see why this is that case. She comes across as a stateswoman – immaculately groomed and well polished with an air of constant calm and serenity. This is next to Trump with his crazy hair and ridiculous facial expressions which makes her look like she is wearing a mask to hide what she truly feels.

She may look presidential but this doesn’t appeal to many voters who have had enough of politicians who they believe tell lies and waste public money. Trump on the other hand isn’t afraid to make outrageous statements and even though he may not always have his facts straight, he shares his views with such passion and conviction, he gets away with it because people are currently seeming to prefer candidates who have no care for political correctness rather than those who toe the line.

From the rise of UKIP in Britain, the shock EU referendum result and now the very real possibility that Trump could become the next President of the United States, it is very clear that people want something different. Fed up with the political establishment telling them what to do and making decisions they don’t agree with, voters are starting to take a stand.

What the outcome will be of this next election, no-one can be quite sure but we do know that the world will be watching on November 8th to see what happens next.

3minuteleadership.org 


You might also be interested in: Authenticity and believing what you say 

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