Marina Kim

Marina co-founded and leads Ashoka U, working with campuses to embed social innovation as an educational focus and core value of the university culture.

Leadership Lessons from Reality TV

Marina Kim (@marinakim) co-founded Ashoka U in 2008, and has been working to not only catalyze social innovation at college campuses around the world, but also to re-envision co-leadership and collaborative team values, cultures, and structures that empower creative professionals over the long-term.

I admit it. I love reality television. Particularly talent development shows like The Voice, Project Runway and So You Think You Can Dance. At first it felt like a guilty pleasure, an escape from my day-to-day challenges into a world where everyone is talented and everyone has potential. Each episode would bring new creative challenges and hopefully a “breakout moment,” and over the course of a few months we witness the birth of new careers in a creative industry.

However, the more I watched I began to realize that what I loved was not just the emotional highs that were carefully orchestrated by savvy television networks. I was actually gaining key insights about leadership that made me rethink how I operated as a manager of a team as well as someone trying to “master” my own field of work.

Of course, I haven’t just learned by watching lots of television. Over the years I had plenty of influential mentors, I worked hard, I experimented and I took risks. However, I do want to share several leadership lessons I’ve learned from the microcosm of reality TV:

1) Learn to Play Nice

How many times have we seen the “front runner” in a show completely fall apart when put in a team-based challenge? Over and over again, those who fail the team challenges cannot figure out how to play well with others. Gone are the days of siloed and isolated work environments; today’s world operates primarily in teams. Successful team leaders co-create, listen, empathize and synthesize ideas, voices and perspectives. The most effective leaders leave their ego at the door and show up ready to collaborate.

2) Break things into high-focus, time-bound challenges.

“Project Runway” is synonymous with time-limited 24 or 48-hour challenges. The high stakes and limited time forces contests to focus intensely in order to rapidly way to progress in skill and output.

Very few people get to experience rapid development/learning/creation cycles that are as intense and time-bound as those on TV. In our reality, emails constantly drag our attention and become a source of procrastination, meetings deplete our time, and multi-tasking is actually proven to significantly reduce productivity.

However, as a leader there’s no reason why you can’t turn your team’s projects into clearly scoped and time-bound mini-projects. The time constraint will force you and your team to prioritize the things that absolutely must get done and will cut down on time wasted doing unnecessary tasks. Identifying a clear goal or scope will enable a focused and collaborative team all working towards the same outcome. As a leader, help provide a structure and an accountability loop that enables the best creative excellence to emerge from your team.

3) The power of feedback.

Whether it’s a “judging panel” or “coaches,” there is always immediate feedback on every performance, tailored to help draw out what is strong and unique about each contestant, while also identifying areas for improvement. The variety of perspectives and tones offering feedback can come across as aggressive, insightful, hurtful and repetitive all at the same time, but it is also the most powerful way to learn fast. When the stakes are high, you live or die by how well you incorporate feedback into your next performance or project.

The best feedback can be categorized into three categories that I have observed:

  • Technical Feedback offers concrete, skill-based areas for improvement and development. Examples include giving feedback on pitch, timing or breathing techniques (The Voice), or the position of a dancer’s toes (So You Think You Can Dance). This type of feedback helps to ensure that the “candidate” is developing the hard skills and techniques required for success.

  • Style Feedback is about how you put your best foot forward to connect with the audience by leveraging and honing your personality and performance. If you’re shy but want to be a performer, it’s about getting comfortable on stage and sharing your emotions. If you want your extroverted personality to come out while on stage, then perhaps it’s picking an energetic song that allows you to use your full body.

  • The final type is Brand Feedback, which can help you identify what makes you different and unique from everybody else. Everyone has something that is their stamp of greatness, but often you can’t see it until someone else points it out. This feedback is helpful to cultivate a unique aesthetic or style as a “designer” or “artist” that is immediately recognizable. Think about it, you can identify your favorite singer from the very first note; their voice is distinctive and unforgettable. Getting feedback and insights on what others value as your specific calling card is hugely helpful to cultivate a consistent personal brand and to get recognized (and ultimately rewarded) for your own special way of doing things.

Becoming technically trained and skillful at executing to the highest level is the minimum need to be successful, but that only works when paired with having your own style, brand and personality.

4) Building a Culture of Excellence

Simon Cowell. Nina Garcia. Adam Levine. These are names associated with tough love and brutal honesty when they give feedback, whether it’s on American Idol, Project Runway or The Voice. While I love being positive and nurturing to everyone around me, one of my biggest lessons learned is that it’s also okay to set and verbalize very high standards. Being blunt but fair is critical to pushing others towards excellence. Yet in many industries, critical feedback is either virtually absent or it is wrapped around lots of very positive feedback with very little constructive or clear tips.

The reality is that there is a distinction between tough and mean. Let’s dispense with the coddling and instead embrace honest feedback.

Bringing it All Together

The pressure cooker of a reality series can be great escapism after a long day at the office. But keep in mind the next time you turn on the reality TV, that they can actually be great learning labs with lessons that can be applied to many daily scenarios and challenges.