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The hard lesson Ellen DeGeneres says she learned about leadership

Ellen DeGenderes
Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
Dancing off of television.
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Ellen DeGeneres is ending her daytime talk show in 2022 after a 19-year run that included a lot of dancing at first and later was mired in controversy. She says she’s learned at least one important lesson as a result of recent criticisms.

Last year, BuzzFeed News reported allegations that DeGeneres oversaw a toxic workplace on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, in which employees “were fired after taking medical leave or bereavement days to attend family funerals” and experienced racial discrimination and bullying at the hands of managers. Though the charges were largely directed at senior management rather than DeGeneres herself, critics held her responsible for allowing such problems to flourish under her leadership. A viral Twitter thread in which people shared stories of negative encounters with the comedian did further damage to her reputation.

In a new interview with the Hollywood Reporter, DeGeneres describes some of the changes she made in response: “I check in now as much as I can through Zoom to different departments and I make sure people know that if there’s ever a question or ever anything, they can come to me and I don’t know why that was never considered before,” she says. “I’m not a scary person.” She also mentions a lesson that she took away from the personal criticisms levied against her:

Well, you realize that every single encounter means something. And if, for whatever reason, one day I wasn’t dancing when I’m in the dry cleaners or I didn’t smile at somebody, it’s like, “Oh, did that affect somebody? Was that what they meant?” And I don’t know but I know that I’m just a person with a lot of different emotions and I struggle with depression and with anxiety. So, every day I’m not super smiley, but my intention is never to hurt anyone. And I’ve also looked at it, going, “Okay, can I be more present because this one-minute encounter is going to impact somebody in a certain way.”

Her point that our behavior can have a big impact on others, even during brief encounters, is one that anyone in a position of power and authority should take to heart.

Power makes people less empathetic

It’s only fair that people across all levels of an organization live up to the expectation of being relatively pleasant to work with. Relatively is a key word here—in order to produce the best possible work, people need to be able to disagree with and challenge one another. But treating others with respect and consideration should be a baseline requirement for bosses as well as the people they manage.

That’s particularly important for people to remember as they climb the ladder, because research shows that power tends to make people more self-involved and less empathetic.

“When you feel powerful, you kind of lose touch with other people,” University of California, Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, author of the book The Power Paradox, explains in a video on the topic. “You stop attending carefully to what other people think.”

The outsize impact of offhand comments

Perhaps part of the problem is that as your influence increases, it’s hard to remember that almost everything you do and say carries more weight than it used to. As DeGeneres notes, even brief encounters can have an outsize impact when you’re in a position of power.

Sheryl Sandberg tells a story about this in her book Lean In, describing how former US Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, when he was co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, once made an offhand remark while touring the trading floor, saying, “Gold looks interesting,” he reportedly said. “This got repeated as ‘Rubin likes gold,’ and someone spent millions of dollars to please the new boss,” with Goldman taking a huge stake in the metal, Sandberg writes.

In Rubin’s case, the comment wasn’t emotional in nature. But anyone who’s ever been crushed by a boss’s snippy retort during a meeting or felt humiliated after their manager lost their temper can attest that what seems like a small moment to a leader can feel like a very big deal to the underlings. There’s a reason why employees report that the worst kind of boss is an unpredictable one. “People want to know what they can expect when they come into work,” as researcher Fadel Matta told the Washington Post.

Like all leaders, DeGeneres is only human, and can’t be expected to be a font of good cheer at all times. Moreover, as she told the Hollywood Reporter, she deals with depression and anxiety, which can affect her interactions sometimes.

But if we cannot ask leaders to always be “on,” we at least can ask that they strive to be thoughtful, present, and even-keeled. The rule of thumb for people at the top might be summarized this way: Just because you’re having a bad day doesn’t mean you get to ruin other people’s day, too.

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