The Potentially Empowering or Devastating Power of Rank

Three years ago, I saw Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the successful remake of the movie “A Star is Born” and there was a scene toward the end which captured my attention. Spoiler alert: If you have not seen the movie, you may want to skip this. But I am guessing you know the plot as the movie has been remade several times with the same basic theme: Successful male rockstar finds young super talented woman, falls in love with her and directly contributes to her fame. Then things go very badly for him, due to a variety of forces and it ends sadly.


In this version, Jack, played by Cooper, is the rockstar and he is troubled by a drug addiction. Ally, played by Lady Gaga, is the unknown, soon-to-be-star.  They meet one night and fall deeply, madly in love. She goes from a semi-unhappy waitress doing local music gigs, to a musical megastar, almost overnight, largely because of Jack’s help and the connections of a forceful international agent named Ramon.  


Ally quickly starts to overshadow Jack.  It is a dramatic shift in rank between the two of them. He is happy for her, and in moments quite jealous.  She blossoms as a performer. The whole experience is triggering for him, and his drinking and drug use worsens.  His mental and physical well-being suffers.  He eventually makes a complete fool of himself, and her, on national TV when she is being honored with a music award.  He is completely plastered, and when she is called up, he goes with her, falls down and urinates on himself on stage.


That event sends him into treatment for chemical dependency.  It was a very hard time, but he survived and returned to Ally. After just a few days back he had a chilling conversation with Ramon, Ally’s agent.  Here is how it went:


Ramon:  We’re not exactly friends here. 

Jack:  (looking deeply troubled and vulnerable) 

Ramon:  (sounding urgent and irritated)  While you’ve been away, we’ve been back here doing serious triage, barely finding our way through it, you almost single handedly derailed her whole career, she’s never going to say this to you, she loves you too much… just by staying married to you she looks like a jerk.  Let’s be honest, it's only a matter of time before that gets pushed aside before the real thing…and when that happens, I don’t want her anyway near you.”

Jack:  (looking very distraught… then, the scene ends)


Ramon expresses no compassion for Jack.  He has no empathy or sensitivity to his current situation as a newly released person in recovery. Ramon has a harsh business edge and an unfriendly demeanor.  He sounds like an angry parent who is protecting Ally. He clearly wants Jack to be apart from Ally and paints a picture of a future where they will not be together. Jack cannot bear that thought. Later that day, while Ally is away, Jack starts to drink, and then takes his own life. 


I believe that the conversation with Ramon was one of the key reasons Jack chose to take his own life by suicide. He had a deep love for Ally. He had a lot of shame about what he did on national TV. The idea of ruining her career was devastating.  And he was in a fragile place, in his recovery and with his mental health.  That conversation with Ramon pushed him over the edge.


If you have seniority or rank over other workers, especially in the tough-world of construction, make sure that you pay attention to the mental and physical well-being of others when having those uncomfortable conversations.


If you want a great culture and a solid safety record, you want people feeling that they are respected, supported, and appreciated.  Even when they mess up.  Jack felt none of that.  He likely felt the opposite: disrespected, judged, and not supported.  He believed Ramon who said he’d be a threat to her musical success. That thought was just too much for him to take.


When you are having those crucial conversations, it is important to communicate in a way that makes it easy for people to have positive thoughts and feelings about themselves.  It is your tone of voice and your body posture -- more than your words -- that will communicate your message.  And you may be thoroughly unaware of your non-verbal signals.  Especially if you have high rank, it can be easy to lose awareness of their needs and feelings.


Almost everyone with high seniority unintentionally misuses their power with others from time to time.  Some do so with great regularity.  Maybe not as maliciously as Ramon, but still with a significant negative impact.


Your leaders need to let people know when they have made a mistake. And when they do so, they will need to also express empathy and understanding.  They can show those emotions and still hold the line. In fact, they need to do both – be compassionate with the other and be as tough as nails. 


Emerging and experienced leaders and supervisors will likely need training and coaching to be consistently skillful in these moments. Communicating directly with empathy and having so-called “courageous conversations” is a personal and professional leadership competency. 


In your work if you want to grow future “stars” you will have to come down to earth and take a serious and sometimes humbling look at yourself.  If you want your workers to have solid mental health and wellbeing, and be as productive and happy as possible, make sure you get all your leaders to learn how to build bridges of connection and help others feel good about themselves (and others), especially when they mess up.