The Leadership Styles of “Girls” at the Negotiating Table

Lena Dunham’s aggressive and generous transactional leadership skills in negotiations

By on / Leadership Skills

Lena Dunham is a hugely successful actor, writer, and director, but the creator of the HBO hit show “Girls,” is also a formidable negotiator. In a January 2016 interview for LinkedIn, Dunham and her co-producer Jenni Konner described the challenges and rewards of good deal-making in an industry that is notorious for gender discrimination. While Dunham and Konner offer invaluable insights on negotiation and gender, their observations are equally powerful examples of the various leadership styles that any successful negotiator should have at their disposal in a challenging negotiation.


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


Learn as a leader

In negotiations, strong, adaptive leadership styles are often learned and perfected away from the table. Successful leaders turn to trusted colleagues to probe the strengths and weaknesses of different leadership styles. In Dunham’s case, Konner showed her how to move beyond her instinct for “people pleasing,” which was not an effective way to get the most out of a negotiation. It can be difficult to hear honest feedback from a trusted adviser, but it also pays off. Ultimately, being more forthright about her interests paved the way for Dunham to explore better ways of getting the higher pay she felt she deserved.

Be clear about what you value

A negotiator is only successful if they have a deep understanding of what they value, and an ability to convey it to their counterpart. Adapting one’s leadership styles in order to do this is essential, giving a negotiator the opportunity to know when to hold firm to a position and when cede it in the interest of gaining a stronger agreement.

Some negotiators worry about saying that they value money in a negotiation, because it might seem crass. But, as As Dunham points out, “Money is one of the ways that you let people know that you appreciate them.” While it is true that there is often more to a negotiation than just money, there is nothing inherently wrong with transactional leadership, especially when getting the right amount affects the bottom line for the people you represent.

Don’t go in with resentment

Negotiators who see a deal as all-or-nothing often approach negotiations with an adversarial attitude toward the other side. This may boost their confidence, but it is one of the more risky leadership styles, preventing the negotiator from finding additional value in a negotiation through collaboration or creative thinking.

Dunham and Konner are quick to remark that their leadership styles are “aggressive,” in negotiations but that they don’t, “go in with a sense of resentment,” because getting a good deal means reaching an agreement that both sides will value down the road. As Dunham observes, that begins with approaching negotiations as something more than simply “dividing up the money,” between two sides.

A deal is the start of a relationship

Great negotiators seek agreements that will last and they have the leadership skills to convey that to the other side. In Dunham and Konner’s industry, this is of particular importance, because a negotiation can set years of work in motion between many stakeholders and their employees.

Dunham and Konner frequently use words that convey their belief that successful negotiations are fundamentally collaborative, even if they are sometimes challenging. “You want to make people happy, but you also…want to be happy,” Dunham rightly points out. At the end of the day, a good agreement reflects the fact that, “You want to go into a job in the strongest position you can [be].”

Understand generosity

Understanding what helps the other side with their problems can often make it easier to reach an agreement in a negotiation. Dunham and Konner have cultivated a powerful approach to negotiations based on their understanding of this idea, frequently balancing their hard-charging leadership styles with acts of generosity. Well-placed and well-timed, a concession to the other side, “comes back to you,” Dunham says. Giving something up has huge symbolic value for the other side, and often enhances the value and durability of an agreement. Simply put, says Konner, “We have never regretted giving someone too much.”

Know when not to be reflective

It is always important to prepare deeply for any negotiation, but an equally essential leadership skill is knowing when not to be too reflective. Creative solutions to hard problems in negotiations are often the result of improvisation. At the root of improvisation is confidence, but that can sometimes be shaken when a negotiator becomes too obsessed with particular aspects of a negotiation. Despite the effort Dunham and Konner put into honing their own leadership styles, they also emphasize that there are some things that they, “are not worried about,” and other times where they, “have no regrets.”

A little more ‘no’

Beneath her “no regrets” approach to negotiation, Dunham has worked hard at perfecting the most challenging component of a good leadership style, which is saying no. As expert negotiator William Ury has written, there is power in a “positive no.” While saying yes to everything made Dunham feel better in the moment, the more she did it, the less effective she became at her work. By slowly introducing a, “polite ‘no,’” into her life, a healthier kind of yes became was possible too, making her a happier person and a more effective negotiator.


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


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