Practically Perfect in Every Way: 8 Leadership Lessons From The New Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins offers lessons in leadership and more. (Photo courtesy of Disney.)

Mary Poppins offers lessons in leadership and more. (Photo courtesy of Disney.)

Set to top $100 million at the box officesoon, the recent launch of the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious remake, “Mary Poppins Returns,” has some keen takeaways for all of us striving to make the best of our professional lives, not the least of which is a spectacular comeback.

The magical nanny with the talking parrot head umbrella is also a feminist, a realist and an inspiration for any of us looking for a return, revamp or new impact.

Fifty-four years after the first Mary Poppins landed in the cultural lexicon, this sequel reimagines the main character (who has not aged a day btw though everyone around her has) has lessons to share we can all use  in our professional lives. Yes, she is magical, yes, she gaslights the children about her powers, but she does have some wise lessons (eight to be exact) that as leaders and aspiring leaders we can take to heart in 2019. Even if we don’t believe we can fly.

The recent remake of @MaryPoppins has some keen takeaways for all of us striving to make the best of our professional lives, not the least of which is a spectacular comeback. What lessons did you take away from the film?

“Put your best foot forward.” So this is not a new mantra, but taking a forthright, positive and calm approach to calamity and misfortune—the Banks family has suffered a loss of their mother and face economic destruction—is good advice. “No one wants to be an obstacle to change, instinctively resisting any new initiatives or efforts. It’s not good for you, your career, or your organization. Improving your adaptability, a critical emotional intelligence competency, is key to breaking this cycle,” write Kandi Wiens and Darin Rowellin Harvard Business Review. ‘Things may feel a little bleak when you don’t agree with a new change, but studies show that having a positive outlook can open us up to new possibilities and be more receptive to change. Asking yourself a few simple questions will help you think more optimistically.”

“I will stay until the door opens.” Again, this isn’t earth-shattering, but Poppins offers a reminder that the old adage about one door closing and another opening is key. So many CEOs and successful entrepreneurs talk about their early failures being the pivot point for change. Katarina Radošević, global head of biologics research at Sanofi in Paris writes in Science:  “I decided that taking a chance on the unknown was better than staying in a position that made me miserable. The worst thing that could happen was that I would fail. But I already felt like a failure, so why not try it? I soon discovered a new passion. My career path within the company opened up. I took on more responsibilities, developed new skills, expanded my scientific horizons, worked with great people, and led fantastic projects—all because of a change that had felt forced on me. It had pushed me further than I was willing to go, further than I thought I could cope with, and taught me that when I step out of my comfort zone, I find my most creative, productive self.”

“Intellect can wash away your confusion.“ She was telling a confused boy to use his imagination, but you can also take Poppins’ advice to mean that research and investigation can solve problems, give you insight and a path to solutions. Economists have acknowledged a “skills gap” in many sectors, and retraining and learning new skills is crucial to stay relevant. “Major companies are beginning to acknowledge these realities, and some have already dedicated enormous resources to addressing the problem. AT&T has pledged to spend $1 billion to supply roughly 100,000 of its employees with new training in data science, cybersecurity, and other novel fields as the telecommunications icon completes its transition from a landline-heavy business model to one based in mobile and cloud-based technology (‘reskilling’ is the preferred term),” according to Forbes.

“Everything is possible.” Ok, so that is a perfect hashtag for a Disney movie, yes, but it also is true for each of us IRL. Everything is possible, and that also means failure as well as success are possible. You need to be realistic about both sides of possibility. “Setting goals without context and pre-planning is not useful because you need to fully assess the previous year by asking yourself what worked, what didn’t, what you should improve on and what potential roadblocks you should be aware of,” writes Sue Hawkes in Entrepreneur. “A lack of context can also lead you to set unrealistic or unattainable goals, which will be demotivating for both you and your team. Stretch yourself but stay realistic. When planning, ask yourself: How will I set myself up to win? What else needs to change in order to make this resolution possible? What do I need to say no to in order to say yes to this resolution?”

The new @MaryPoppins film contains leadership mantras that we could all use (i.e. ‘A cover is nice but a cover is not the book’ and ‘Intellect can wash away your confusion’). Share your favorite #MaryPoppinsLeadershipTips with us.

“A cover is nice, but a cover is not the book.” I want this on a t-shirt. Yes, this was possibly my favorite musical number in the movie performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt as Jack and Mary, but it is a reminder not just about our own physical appearances, but about diving beneath superficialities when tempted to judge colleagues, co-workers, clients, administration, CEOs, even projects.  Deep transparency and accountability help you navigate leadership and collaboration in teams. The most effective way to build a culture of transparency begins with those in leadership positions. It is the responsibility of the leadership team to develop an atmosphere in which there is balanced accountability and continuous improvement and this is everyone’s shared duty. Leaders must lead by example,” writes Gary S. Kaplan in HBR.

Activism is timeless. Jane Banks, now a grown up advocate for workers rights, was one of the two Banks children in the original story line, and is now working for SPRUCE: Society For The Protection of The Rights of Underpaid Citizens of England. Following in the feminist footsteps of her mother in the original, Jane is a single, independent soul and a reminder that action for causes is timeless and necessary.

“The world is turning turtle.” Meryl Streep makes a cameo appearance as Poppins’ cousin who can fix anything that is broken, but who weekly experiences her world—and her store—literally turn upside down. Many of us can relate. Gloria Feldt, president and co-founder of Take The Lead, created the 9 Leadership Power Tools as building blocks for leadership. Power Tool #5, “Carpe the Chaos,” echoes the topsy turvy world of unpredictability. According to Feldt, “Change creates chaos. Today’s changing gender roles and economic turbulence may feel chaotic and confusing. But chaos also means boundaries become more fluid. That’s when people are open to new ways of thinking, to innovation, and to new roles for women. Carpe the chaos, for in chaos is opportunity.”

Gloria Feldt, president and co-founder of Take The Lead, created the #9LeadershipPowerTools as building blocks for leadership. Power Tool #5, Carpe the Chaos, echoes the topsy turvy world of unpredictability in @MaryPoppins.

“Nowhere to go but up!” Of course there is a happy ending and it is a bit sappy in the movie, but this is a reminder that even with challenges, obstacles and adversity, we can each see improvement and recovery. “Realize that everyone, even those at the top, encounters setbacks. Serena Williams, probably the best female tennis player of all time, also has encountered health issues and injuries. Progress is never just a straight line,” writes Steve Watkins in Investors’ Business Daily.

Not every moment in the new Mary Poppins film can be applied to a 21st century workplace and the needs of women leaders and entrepreneurs. (She does just drift off in the end without a real succession plan.)

But the appearance of then 91-year-old Mr. Dawes Jr., played by Dick Van Dyke, as the CEO of the bank where the workforce is mostly all white and all male, reminds us that some things are the same.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon