Hamilton, or Getting Out of Your Box

“…Inclusiveness. Generosity. Ingenuity….and the will to work hard to make our dreams come true. Look around. Look around! How lucky we are to be alive right now.

  • Jeffrey Seller, Producer, “Hamilton: An American Musical” on accepting the Tony Award for 2016 Best Musical

If you haven’t heard of “Hamilton: An American Musical” you’re pretty much living under a rock. Revolutionary in more ways than one, this modernization of the American musical deserves the rapturous credit it’s received and the creator – Lin-Manuel Miranda – is a gift to those who know the arts can do more than just entertain. Miranda simply took the musical form out of its aging box, shook it out and refashioned it to fit the times.

“How lucky we are to be alive right now” goes a line in the play. How lucky we are. But I would wager that many leaders don’t share that sentiment, at least not readily. Many leaders are just trying to get through their overflowing Inbox and crisis-du-jour. They are trying to bring their teams forward as change violently throws them into new circumstances again and again. And even when they find satisfaction in their work, they still feel that somehow, someway, things could be better “if only…”

Why is this the experience? I’ve come to observe it’s because they are living in a box; a box of 24/7 commitment to the job, a box of ABC (Always Be Closing or, always be accomplishing), a box of the constant quest for promotion, a box of displaying pristine competence. Women leaders live in an additional box, the one marked “Lead As a Man But Not Too Much.”

I’ve been spending a good deal of time exploring the cost living in a box, or an Ideal, particularly as it relates to women leaders. There are many reasons why women have not risen as high and as consistently as they are capable of doing, as Forbes’ Kathy Caprino articulated in 2013. The reasons Caprino cites include the unrealistic demand to always be on call, the long-term effect of subtle sidelining and the inclination not to compartmentalize one’s life. What is universally shared by all leaders, however, is that they are often groomed to fit into models that reward those who are successful fitting into an ideal of leadership while punishing those who can’t, even if their skills, talents and abilities are what is needed for the role.

It reminds me of far too many professionals I’ve known who are overlooked for a role because, although they meet all the ostensive requirements, are not the right “fit” for the job. While I agree that “fit” as defined by temperament and ability to align easily with an organization’s culture is highly valid, it can be used as careless short-hand for someone who is not quite like the rest of the group based on external characteristics, background or style. In other words, it can be too easily used to unfairly discriminate, leaving the challenging work of adjusting an organization to meet the current times untouched. Lauren Rivera of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management studied the problem of fit in what she termed elite professional services firms (banking, consulting, law). She found that an applicant’s socioeconomic history – ie, whether or not they hailed from a privileged background – was a strong indicator of receiving a job offer. It’s a strange sort of in-breeding that takes place in many companies, with pernicious results. If you don’t fit the model you can’t get to the top. You can try getting there, certainly, but the odds are not in your favor.

You’re stuck in a box.

It’s time for the professional leadership ranks to embrace their own Lin-Manuel Miranda; a smart, forward-thinking breaker of chains who takes these tired, outworn and ultimately limiting models of leadership, shakes them out and refashions them to fit the times. In fact, it does not have to be one person, it can be a whole host of leaders who are just plain tired of providing a jaded response to the question “Why does it have to be this way?”

How lucky we are to be alive right now when we don’t need more research to confirm what is already quite clear. Success is not singularly defined. It just needs a little inclusiveness, generosity and ingenuity to put it on a better track.





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