Imagine for a moment being composed and unflappable in the face of every behavior that might set you off. Getting fired. Being discriminated against. Told you are a failure. Not being allowed to speak. Expected to follow the pecking order. Expected to comply while your boss loses his composure in dramatic and threatening ways. Any one of these acts would interfere with most people’s best version of themselves. Yet Elizabeth Zott keeps her composure as her boss’s frustration escalates, offering a clear picture of what being unflappable really looks like.
In this scene from the book “Lessons in Chemistry”, she “wins” by keeping her composure, waiting to pull the fourteen-inch chef’s knife until it’s absolutely necessary.
In “Lessons in Chemistry,” set in the early 60’s, we meet a brilliant chemist named Elizabeth Zott, who happens to be a woman living in a man’s world. The book takes us through the twists and turns of her quest to do her research in chemistry, while she is stymied at every turn by men who assume there is no place for a woman scientist.
The scene may be fiction, but the aspiration is real. (And this particular scene does not occur on the popular Apple series.) Whether we are in the office operating in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment or working with a challenging client or working with a horse who needs more reassurance, the ability to stay present in the face of pressure matters. I’m often asked, “How do you define executive presence?” Presence comes through a felt sense, and being genuinely calm, relaxed, and composed under pressure generates that felt sense. In other words, executive presence comes from being responsive, rather than being reactive. But how does one do that when crazy stuff is going down?
It comes down whether we react or respond.
Reading the book called to mind an event that happened early in my career. I had an experience of discrimination still running rampant almost 20 years after the timeframe in this book. In my case, the year was 1979. I joined an accounting firm as an accountant, soon to be a CPA. All the partners in the firm were male. I filled the slot of a male accountant, who was graduating school in the same class as I was. Our education was identical, and I was graduating Summa Cum Laude. The first move they made when I arrived was to switch my time sheet from “accountant” to “staff,” which was the time sheet they used for the support staff at the firm. In other words, I got the time sheet most of the women filled out. If I recall correctly, the color of the new time sheet was pink. At the time, I didn’t have the courage to question the blatant sexism, nor did I question my pay, which was almost certainly less than the young man who held the job before me. My reaction was to do nothing, because I wanted to fit in. I wanted them to like me.
Throughout "Lessons in Chemistry", Elizabeth Zott faces extreme sexism, including being raped by her thesis advisor. As was often the case in those days (and even sometimes today), she was blamed for assaulting her rapist when she defended herself.
In our pivotal scene with the fourteen-inch knife, Zott is meeting with the station manager of her highly popular TV show called “Supper at Six.” Against all odds, the dry, logical chemist has become a cooking show host who espouses the chemistry of cooking, breaking all the rules of TV along the way. She had been called in to see the station manager after she made some witty comments about using poisonous mushrooms for murder. She was warned by the make-up artist not to see Phil Lebensmal alone, but Zott assured her that it would be fine.
A powerful moment in the scene occurs as she sat there calmly, after the station manager had made every intimidating move he had in his book. He said “Did I ask you to speak?” after she responded to his comment that she was late. (She was early.) He went ballistic when she asked him to turn down the 4 TV’s blaring station shows in the background. When he asked her if she knew who he was, she calmly responded with his name: “Phil Lebensmal.”
In the middle of one of his tirades, “He stopped in midsentence, put off by her reaction – or rather, nonreaction. It was the way she sat in her chair. Like a parent waiting for her child to finish his tantrum. ‘On second thought,’ he spat impulsively, ‘you’re fired!’ And when she still didn’t react, he got up and stomped over to the four TVS and switched them all off, breaking two knobs in the process. ‘EVERYONE IS FIRED!’ he bellowed…Breathing hard, he went back to his desk and flung himself in his chair, awaiting the only two reactions from her that could or should inevitably follow: crying or apologies, preferably both.
The scene goes on as Zott remains unflappable, asking clarifying questions without rising to the Lebensmal’s antics. She continues to have a conversation around the issues, while he tries every which way to push her buttons. He’s a true Fighting Francis (a character from my book The Elegant Pivot) in every sense, and she reveals how assuming positive intent - not rising up to his antics - causes him to escalate to the point of buffoonery. And more.
She doesn’t say things like “How dare you talk to me like that,” nor does she cry or grovel as he clearly expected her to do. She continues to speak to the business at hand, focusing on the important points of the conversation, ignoring his antics. While Lebensmal shakes file folders, claiming that he’s getting nothing but complaints about the show, she acknowledges there have been a few complaints, and many, many more letters of support. She shares her surprise, as she has a history of not fitting in, and surmises that perhaps the show works because of not fitting in.
“’Feeling like one doesn’t fit is a horrible feeling,’ she continued, unruffled. ‘Humans naturally want to belong – it’s part of our biology. But our society makes us feel that we’re never good enough to belong. Do you know what I mean, Phil? Because we measure ourselves against useless yardsticks of sex, race, religion, politics, schools. Even height and weight –‘
‘What?’, he replied.
‘In contrast, Supper at Six focuses on our commonalities – our chemistries. So even though our viewers may find themselves locked into a learned societal behavior – say, the old ‘men are like this, women are like that’ type of thing – the show encourages them to think beyond that cultural simplicity. To think sensibly. Like a scientist.’”
Reading this passage, I could feel the calm composure radiating from the character, as rage filled the man who had more than met his match. I’ve witnessed such moments. They are truly powerful.
At this point, Lebensmal reached his breaking point. When Elizabeth Zott failed to rise to his bait, his only remaining move was nuclear. He lit a cigarette, downed a shot of whiskey and unbuckled his belt. Spouting more threatening words, he advanced on her, as she said in a steady voice: “I would advise you not to get any closer, Phil.”
He continued nattering on about who’s in charge and how he would show her. The book goes on:
“She shook her head in wonder. She had no idea why men believed women found male genitalia impressive or scary. She bent over and reached into her bag.
’I know who I am!’ he shouted thickly, thrusting himself at her. ‘The question is, who the hell do you think you are?’
‘I’m Elizabeth Zott,’ she said calmly, withdrawing a freshly sharpened fourteen-inch chef’s knife. But she wasn’t sure he’d heard. He’d fainted dead away.”
While the scene is fiction, I’ve seen plenty of Fighting Francis scenes play out much like this in real life. Whether in the board room, office or airport, the bully’s game falls flat when we choose not to rise to the bait and buy into their shenanigans. It’s so much easier said than done!
What does it take to be calm and composed under pressure? It helps to parse the signal from the noise. I sometimes envision a bundle of multiple wires coming at me. Only a few may carry the signal that is worth paying attention to. The rest are noise, which will interfere with the conversation. Interference often arises from our insecurities. In our Lessons in Chemistry scene, Zott returned the conversation to the matter at hand repeatedly, while the station manager kept interfering with his need to show his perceived power over her. She ignored the noise and focused on the signal, offering to engage on the points that mattered. It’s easy to get caught in the noise. In a similar setting, if I go into the Homeless Sequence – “I might lose this job, and then won’t be able to get another one and if I don’t have a job, I will be on the street and then I will die!” – I will touch the wires presented that play to my fear. And we get more of what we touch. Keeping a clear picture in my mind of what matters most helps me touch the wire that leads to good outcomes.
So now to my readers. I’m curious. What do you see in this scene? Have I provided enough context to offer your thoughts? Where have you seen someone (or been someone) who faced a true Fighting Francis such as this character? How would you advise someone facing such a situation? What do you do in your own life to reduce noise and interference in order to focus on the signal?