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Monday, June 19, 2017

"Wonder Woman" & The Civil Servants




As a civil servant, “Wonder Woman” rotated on a different axis for me than everybody else.

They saw a revolutionary figure: the feminist superhero.

There she was, punching out the bad guys, flying through the air, catching bullets with those awesome cuff bracelets. (Pretty cool! Watch for that consumer trend to take off like crazy!)

But from where I sat, the main character was Steve (Chris Pine), the American spy. Where Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) flew off by herself “to do her thing,” Trevor stayed within the bounds of the team. Where she could speak a hundred languages, he knew how to bend the rules of the bureaucracy.

Both of them were technically skilled. Both of them had good intentions.

But it was Steve who understood that the mission never ends. And that to make any difference at all, you have to work in unison, to attack one problem at a time.

The character of Diana reminded me of Carrie (Claire Danes) on the television show “Homeland.”

Like Diana, Carrie is smarter than everyone else on the team. Like Diana, she doesn’t believe in the rules — only in the end goal.

For both heroines, the ends justify the means.

But leadership without management is chaos.

And if I may be permitted a political, editorial comment, this is the point I think President Trump really needs to see.

The President came to Washington, D.C., with the goal of “draining the swamp.” And by God, I think he can really do that.

But along the way, he’s allowed his political appointees to cast aside the very bureaucrats who could help him. People who share the same values and vision.

More than one person has told me that they’ve been treated terribly.

And I can see the morale among my colleagues plummeting as a result.

Don’t get me wrong, we need fearless leaders. Leaders who have the guts to stand up and say when something, or someone, is wrong.

This is exactly how “Wonder Woman,” a.k.a. Diana, is in the movie.

In one memorable scene rails against the turgid military bureaucracy, calling their failure to act aggressively “shameful.”

Diana’s outburst motivates Steve to get outside his comfort zone. He gets his superior on board for a plan that, like in every action movie, is totally against the rules.

I found myself wishing that President Trump had a Steve on board.

In the movie, this character successfully recruits and motivates a jaded team — none of them treated fairly by the system, all of them scarred, each of them somewhat checked-out and disengaged.
  • Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) wanted to be an actor but couldn’t, because his skin is brown. 
  • The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) is demotivated. He has nothing left to fight for, he notes: Steve’s ancestors took that away in the previous war. 
  • Charlie (Ewen Bremner) has post-traumatic stress disorder, and is “haunted by ghosts” — he is a marksman who cannot shoot a gun. 
Speaking to each one with respect, honor and understanding — and throwing in a few beers along the way — Steve successfully assembles a team to take on a nearly impossible mission.

As a student of leadership and management, I couldn’t stop taking notes.

In the end, he teaches even “Wonder Woman” a few important things.

The most significant lesson of all, the one most pertinent to a cog in the bureaucracy, I think — is to honor the reality of what it is you’re fighting for.

For Diana, in her idealistic worldview, wanted to return the world to a state of perfection. Where people could be seen as fundamentally good.

Steve, on the other hand, was more in tune with the realities of human nature. “We’re all good and bad,” he says. “It’s what you believe that matters.”

What civil servants see, all the time, is that there is goodness and badness in all people — you’re never going to “cure” the dark side of human nature.

All you can do is fight the bad as it comes up. Not by hoping and dreaming. But by applying “hard skills and soft skills” impartially, accurately and above all humanely.

I have worked in the civil service for more than a dozen years. The people who work here genuinely want to serve. And if you don’t believe that what I’m saying is true, and you don’t want to spend your time on surveys — just talk to anyone who’s been walked through a maze of confusing rules by none other than a Fed.

“Wonder Woman” was a great movie.

It was great to see a strong female character like that.

And it really put all the discussion of corruption in perspective.

For while there will always be a few bad apples with disproportionate influence, I agree with Diana, not Steve — most people are essentially and inherently good.

And it made me appreciate the vast majority of my peers, hardworking and decent people.

I wish they would get the positive feedback and support they deserve.

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By Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author’s own; this blog is posted in the author’s personal capacity. Available for reuse under Creative Commons 3.0 License. Photo source: “Gal Gadot, Chris Pine Talk ‘Wonder Woman,’” Front Row Features, for editorial use only (direct link to photo here). Caption: (l-r) Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Gal Gadot as Diana, Eugene Brave Rock as The Chief and Ewen Bremner as Charlie in the action adventure “Wonder Woman.” ©Warner Bros. Entertainment/Ratpac Dune Entertainment. CR: Clay Enos.