Published: Nov. 14, 2023 By

There was a lot to love about this year’s blockbuster sensation – Barbie – including the outrageous costumes, music montages, and gripping monologues. But when it comes to looking for a movie to teach you about leadership, Barbie might not be the first one that comes to mind. However, beneath the glitter and pink, emerged five important steps to becoming an effective leader. As Margot Robbie transforms from doll to human and from stereotypical Barbie to extraordinary leader, she provides a roadmap for your own leader development. 

Dr. Stefanie Johnson as BarbieLeadership Lesson 1: Self-Awareness and Identity are Core to Leadership

Barbie and Ken seem like simple characters which makes it so surprising how little self-awareness that have. But through their journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance they gain agency in becoming their true selves. Starting with the scene where Barbie has to choose her high heel shoe versus the Birkenstock sandal, she is faced with deciding what is most important to her. She struggles with this question saying, “I am not really sure where I belong anymore.” Ken faces the same questions, telling Barbie “I just don’t know who I am without you.” Barbie wisely responds, “You are not your house or your girlfriend or your job. Maybe all the things that you thought made you, you aren’t really you,” and “It is time to discover who Ken is.” Barbie’s eventual identity transformation comes at the end of the movie when she (spoiler alert) becomes a human being. Go Barbie! Research consistently shows that identity development is integral to leader development and, although identity development occurs across the lifespan, college is a critical period for identity development. So, start reflecting on your values, goals, and strengths to move your leader development forward. Knowledge is power and self-knowledge can become your superpower.  

Leadership Lesson 2: Leaders Need Effective Communication

Once you understand your goals as a leader, you need effective communication to explain those goals to others. Through conveying emotions, expressing needs, and coordinating plans, the Barbie movie exemplifies the importance of effective communication. When it comes to leadership, it is one thing to have a great idea to inspire change – but being able to mobilize others to understand your vision requires great communication skills. For example, America Ferrara’s character is able to deprogram the Barbies with words because, “giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy… robbed it of its power.” Moreover, when Barbie expresses concern for hurting Ken, her friend says, “He took your house, he brainwashed your friends. He wants to control the government.” Sometimes, straight forward communication needs to be used to speak truth to power and point out hypocrisy. A take away for aspiring leaders is to spend extra time thinking about how you are going to communicate your great ideas to your team, your investors, your supervisors. You cannot rely on a good idea alone; it is imperative that other people can understand your vision through your communication.    

Leadership Lesson 3: Leaders Succeed Through Teamwork and Collaboration

Although Barbie seems collaborative by nature, we increasingly see how her success is contingent upon teamwork as the story progresses. Whether it is planning an amazing group dance scene or overthrowing patriarchy to restore a well-functioning government, Barbie enlists the power of her gal pals to make it happen. Indeed, one study showed that collaboration can increase productivity of teams by 50%. And what happens when collaboration breaks down in favor of competition? The Barbie movie also speaks to this when the Kens go to war with each other, costing them their Kendom. Barbie also conveys a very strong leadership lesson by giving credit to her team. At the end of the movie when Barbie is congratulated for overthrowing the patriarchy, she responds that it “was a group effort.” Well played, Barbie. For us mere mortals, a couple of lessons shine through. Leadership is about inspiring a team to collectively meet a goal. A lack of collaboration and, even worse, internal competition over power can diminish a team’s success. Leaders need to spend less time doing tasks and more time investing in the creation of a collaborative team to get the job done.

Leadership Lesson 4: Embrace Diversity and Inclusion

Any collaborative team is beneficial, but a diverse, inclusive, and collaborative team can change the world. From the start of the movie, Barbie Land celebrates the beauty of diversity. However, as we move through the movie, a deeper understanding of the meaning of diversity emerges, alongside an appreciation of a fully inclusive environment. Barbie Land is full of dolls from different backgrounds, cultures, and even professions. However, it is clear that some Barbies, like Weird Barbie, the Skippers, all the Kens, and Alan are left in the shadows. Kens have no representation in government, the courts, medicine etc. This point is elucidated when paralleled with the underrepresentation of women in key positions in the real world, despite their qualifications. As the movie progresses, the Barbies realize that all of the dolls should be fully included in Barbie Land. Indeed, the ability to INCLUSIFY – or lead in an inclusive way so that you can benefit from the diverse perspectives on your team – is a key driver of future leadership success. The leadership lesson here is that even if your team looks diverse along some dimensions, ensuring that you are really inclusive to all voices is going to create a better team, organization, Barbie Land, and world.

Leadership Lesson 5: Leaders Need Resilience in the Face of Adversity

Any leadership journey is going to have some ups and downs – and overcoming and learning from those challenges is key to leadership success. We recently hosted David Gergen at the Center for Leadership (CFL). He highlights the importance of crucible moments – difficult challenges that leaders face that make them stronger leaders and humans. Early in the movie, Barbie seems overwhelmed by anything that deviates from perfect. But, by facing increasingly difficult challenges and engaging in reflection, Barbie grows strength and resilience to difficulties. Barbie’s crucible moment occurs when she faces the patriarchy in Barbie Land. Her friends have been brainwashed, she has lost her dream house, and the Kens are planning to change the constitution to oppress women. She wants to give up and wait “for one of the more leadership-oriented Barbies” to help but instead tackles the challenge. If Barbie can overthrow the patriarchy in one afternoon with a few pink jumpsuits and some Barbie buddies, what could you do to make the world a better place? As Barbie said, “You have to try – even if you can’t make it perfect you can make it better.”

So, what does this mean for you? All leadership really begins with an understanding of oneself. It’s impossible to understand and motivate others if you don’t understand yourself and what motivates you. With that understanding, you can create goals but you must be able to effectively communicate those goals to other to create a collaborative and effective team. Great leaders ensure that their collaborative teams are diverse and inclusive. Finally, all leadership journeys will include some challenges that you need to overcome. Practicing overcoming small challenges will make you stronger when your crucible moment occurs. If you are a student at CU, come visit us at the Center for Leadership or engage with any of our 30 affiliate leadership programs on campus. In our programs, we will give you space to learn about self-awareness, practicing the art of communication, working collaboratively with teams, leading more inclusively, and overcoming adversity.