The secret to Anna Wintour’s success isn’t “bitchiness”

She just knows what she wants.
She just knows what she wants.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast artistic director, should be known for many qualities: fierce intelligence, indomitable leadership, and political power, among them. But perhaps because The Devil Wears Prada was such a memorable movie—or perhaps because she is a woman—Wintour is best known as, well, a bitch.

It’s a shame, and not just because it’s sexist and irrelevant. Whether we are underlings in the workplace, fast-rising managers, aspiring leaders, or just observing from the sidelines, we could all learn a lot from one of the world’s most successful women.

Wintour gives few revealing interviews—her conversation with New York Magazine’s Amy Larocca in May was an exception well worth reading—but she did share a bit about her management style in the debut episode of Vogue’s new podcast.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the quality to which Wintour attributed her success has, probably, in large part contributed to her icy reputation, a Catch-22 that’s well-known to female leaders: She’s decisive.

It’s a winning trait in a leader, and to some, a fearsome quality in a woman.

In the podcast, Wintour told Vogue contributing editor Andre Leon Talley (18:20) that she learned it from watching her father, the late London Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour.

I was brought up in a family of journalists, and a mother who was deeply committed to human rights, so I think that the mix of those two huge influences have been very, very important to me. And I was able to see my father for many, many years—he was an editor for as long as I have been [an editor]. I learned what it was to be an editor, I think. And I learned how important it is to lead and be decisive, and to, in a way, empower other people to do their best. And I think that’s really what I’m proud of in [the September] issue, is that a lot of freedom was given to a lot of people, and they all came back trumps…

Is there any one thing that you regret about being at Vogue? Is there anything you regret?

Well no, I don’t have regrets. Certainly we have made mistakes, but you try and learn from your mistakes. And the most important thing is always to move forward, and, I think empower people to do their best, and to lead. I think people respect that, and work better under those circumstances.

I was just discussing a similar situation at lunch yesterday, about what makes a great political candidate. And I feel it’s energy, it’s vitality, and the sense that you’re going to lead people in a direction that maybe they haven’t been before, and didn’t know that they could achieve. And in a very, very, small way, that’s what one tries to do here at Condé Nast.

Trust your instincts, empower your employees to do the same, learn from your mistakes, and move on.

The rest of the podcast episode was mostly just a redux of the magazine’s September issue, but the possibility of hearing Anna Wintour’s ongoing professional advice just made me a subscriber.