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December 2011




by Tina Fey (Little, Brown and Company, 2011).


What are the big take-aways?


Tina Fey, who got her start in comedy as a member of The Second City improv troupe out of Chicago, was a key writer at “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) for many years before producing and starring in her own NBC sitcom, “30 Rock.” Bossypants, a very funny autobiography, is about how the different elements of Fey’s upbringing, teen years, theater training, and writing experience all eventually led to her becoming a television executive. It is a self-effacing feminist’s memoir; the book is peppered with wry examples of how Fey suspects she is treated differently than high-powered male executives. She explains on page 5:


…people have asked me, “Is it hard for you, being the boss?” and “Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?” You know, in the same way they say, “Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?” I can’t answer for Mr. Trump, but in my case it is not. I’ve learned a lot over the past ten years about what it means to be the boss of people. In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way…Contrary to what I believed as a little girl, being the boss almost never involves marching around, waving your arms, and chanting, “I am the boss! I am the boss!”


Why did I like it?


Fey tells the story of her childhood, “coming-of-age,” career and family life with a lot of silly humor – which I admire, because good comic timing in writing requires immense talent – and it also offers serious nuggets of genuine insight into our culture’s perceptions of working mothers. Whether those perceptions are positive or negative, Fey’s experience of them seems amplified both by her high-powered job and by her celebrity. In Bossypants, Fey paints a portrait of a leader whose status as a mother affects how people treat her, react to her professional choices, and respond publicly to her work.


I also liked it because three shaded grey boxes in the book provide a bit of authentic leadership wisdom:


  • “The Rules of Improvisation that Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat” (p. 84-85)
  • “My Bossypants Managerial Techniques” (p. 175)
  • “My Mouth Goes Into Politics. The Rest of Me is Forced to Follow.” (p. 205-06)


The philosophy espoused in the shaded boxes is underscored by a pithy subchapter entitled “Things I Learned from Lorne Michaels,” whom Fey describes as having “a managerial style that was the opposite of Bossypants” (p. 121).


I would note that Fey’s humor is graphic, edgy and – shall we say “uninhibited” – about men’s and women’s bodily functions; while I personally happen to appreciate comedians who can make fun of such things in an intelligent way, I realize that many people don’t. What is interesting, though, is that one of the revelations Fey had about why SNL’s sketch comedy was so male-oriented when she first started there was that it was the by-product of what she describes as a kind of innocence. When a fake commercial for a nostalgic “Kotex Classic” product that Fey persisted in pitching kept getting rejected by her male producers for vague reasons, she finally had a pivotal conversation with them about the concept. “They didn’t know what a maxi pad belt was. It was the moment I realized that there was no ‘institutionalized sexism’ at that place. Sometimes they just literally didn’t know what we were talking about” (p. 141).


In what situations would this be useful?


While I am not a parent (by choice), and have not experienced the weird range of societal responses to being a mother-who-is-a-professional that Fey describes, I would recommend the final forty pages of the book to any executive who is a mother of young children. The last several chapters, starting with “There’s a Drunk Midget in My House,” are a series of smart ruminations that ends with a fairly poignant essay in which Fey grapples with the question of whether or not to have a second child. (If this piece sounds familiar, you may have read it already in The New Yorker magazine.)


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


What comes to mind for me as I think about this “pairing” question is Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion by Boyatzis and McKee (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library). Having the capacity to lead an integrated life as an executive and parent – among many other simultaneous roles – requires the skills of mindfulness and resiliency, which Fey appears to demonstrate in her autobiography. In their book, Boyatzis and McKee argue persuasively for how these skills make for more effective leaders over the long haul, and provide tips for cultivating them.


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