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What Claire Underwood's Sheath Dresses Tell Us About Leadership

Like 20M+ other Americans, I love House of Cards. When Netflix had a glitch and there was promise to have all Season 3 released 2 weeks early for the long Valentines / Presidents’ Day weekend, I was eager to see what President Frank Underwood and his wife Claire were scheming up next. Netflix tricked us! We had to hold tight for another two weeks.

Part of what makes the show worth watching for me is Claire. Chic, eloquent, and always prepared with the right comeback, threat, or tactic for a negotiation, Claire in so many ways embodies the type of woman many of us working our way up the corporate ladder are seeking to be—unshakable, unstoppable, and respected. And, like other TV protagonist, Olivia Pope, her closet carries a reputation and legacy of its own.

So when Dailyworth, one of my favorite job resource sites, released an article on how to embody Claire in everyday wardrobe choices, I was delighted to see they noted that her staple was what mine had been for so many years: a simple elegant sheath dress. Inside, I jumped up and down. “Aha!” I thought, “Have I truly mastered what it means to be the most powerful woman in the free world?”

In the midst of my excitement, one of my dearest friends, and also my House of Cards viewing buddy, noticed me slipping out of reality and asked me what was going on. I beamed that I shared the same staple of Claire, and thus of course, was fully capable of taking over the world, or at the very least, running a major corporation. “Good for you,” my friend said, “You dress like a 50 year old southern politician. And you’re 27. Enjoy that.” My face dropped, but hours later, I had another revelation.

While I was always ‘appropriate,’ many times my staple sheath dresses are also lazy and quite boring. I thought again about what it means to take over a business/run the world and more epiphanies started flowing. Leadership is about being polished and careful about your personal brand, but it’s certainly not about being lazy or boring. It is about taking risks, being intentional about the image you want to present, and being creative about how that message is conveyed.

Fast Company’s March issue of the “World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies” highlighted many companies that started in the last few years, a number of which were run by young tech geniuses in Silicon Valley. The lack of Fortune 500 companies demonstrates they may have some advancing to do when it comes to diversifying their leadership and increasing their tolerance for risk. Meanwhile the fast growing, successful, young product and tech companies on the list teach us the reward of doing so. Safety and appropriateness can come at the cost of innovation, marketplace leadership, and business growth. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg have further taught us that leadership and success no longer has to come in the form of a safe black suit.

Claire Underwood is no doubt bold, classy, and memorable. Despite this, she isn’t the front-runner, as we see her cope with in season 3—Frank is. Claire sacrifices creativity for safety. And the price she pays is staying on the sideline to let someone shine.

If you want your ideas to be noticed, lead in every way. Be thoughtful about what you want to present, but then be more thoughtful about how you present it. Consider trying a new tactic every time, and even when you think you’ve mastered it, keep trying new things. When leadership stops taking risks, growth slows.

I still love to watch Claire, but I think I’ll take a break from dressing like her. Our outfits, just like the ideas we bring to work, should involve some risks, creativity and diversity. A sheath dress or suit can be a great staple, but it shouldn’t become a uniform.

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