Leadership Development TV-Style (Some Reflections on Netflix's House of Cards)
Guest Writer: Clytemnestra

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
[House of Cards is a political drama produced by Netflix. It is an adaptation of a 1990's BBC series of the same name. Clytemnestra is a career woman in a major US city with an academic past.]

Leadership Development TV-Style (Some Reflections on Netflix's House of Cards)

I met Ram Charan when I was putting together a “leadership development” program at the company I work for. Charan is one of the best known gurus of the leadership consulting industry, author of 16 best-selling leadership books. In his presence, I felt like I was meeting Yoda.

Charan’s stature is such that he can charge $25,000 a day to transform ordinary executives into corporate Jedi. He views leadership as a benevolent, almost spiritual force and in that he’s far from alone. Corporations, universities, and government offices, aided and abetted by an army of consultants, spend millions pursuing a similar ideal of “resonant” or “transformational” leadership, embodied by selfless, visionary paragons spreading personal fulfillment, organizational health and profitability.

In the 2013 Netflix political drama House of Cards, pop culture proposes an ironic counterpoint to this discourse. In this blend of black comedy and political thriller, it’s the schemers and bullies---in short, the assholes---who are society’s real leaders, coat-tailing their followers to power and wealth, and leaving a trail of crushed, bewildered paragons in their wake. By soaking every leadership industry precept in an acid bath of cynicism, the show forces us to confront a fundamental contradiction between the paragons that we think we want as our leaders and the total assholes we usually do have.

Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey in a performance that reprises Ian Richardson’s role in the original BBC series from 1990) is the scheming congressman at the epicenter of House of Cards. Taking his place in the post-70’s pop-cultural leadership pantheon of toxic narcissists and delusional megalomaniacs (from Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko to David Harken in Horrible Bosses, the latter also played by Spacey), Frank is the Platonic ideal asshole, a form and type of which most of our political leaders and corporate bosses are merely imperfect reflections.

The leadership coaches have a very different ideal in mind. They’re in the business of manufacturing paragons using a trendy mix of cognitive-behavioral psychology and Zen Buddhism, imparted through programs of workshops, one-on-one coaching and self-reflection. As one of the more intellectually responsible leadership consulting groups puts it, paragons must cultivate “compassion,” “mindfulness” and “hope.” They must also work on developing “emotional intelligence,” a combo of self- and social awareness that enables you to monitor your own and other people’s feelings, and use the information to “manage” yourself and your relationships. Frank subverts all the self-help principles upon which such supposedly reparative leadership therapies are premised. You could say that introspection and relationship management are weaponized in House of Cards.

The aptly named “Frank” has an enviable capacity for introspection. He’s given to Hamlet-like asides that reveal a keen awareness of his own motives. It’s just that these turn out to be every bit as venal and self-serving as his actions suggest. Here’s Frank at the new president’s victory party:

President-elect Garret Walker. Do I like him? No. Do I believe in him? That’s beside the point. Any politician who gets 70 million votes is tapped into something larger than himself, larger than even me, as much as I hate to admit it. Look at that winning smile; those trusting eyes. I latched onto him early on and made myself vital. After 22 years in Congress, I can smell which way the wind is blowing.

Maybe Frank needs the interventions peddled by the leadership industry. Or maybe he’s just mentally healthy at a level most of us can’t even dream of. There is zero conflict between his inner truth and his external behavior. We should all be so integrated.

Frank has the “vision” thing down too: a vision of limitless power and scorched-earth revenge. Early in the series, he is denied the position that Candidate Walker had promised him. In the 12 episodes that follow, Frank systematically destroys those who thwarted him while paving an alternate path to even greater power.

He’s able to do this partly by being the most cold-blooded character this side of Dexter. Watching him, you find yourself constantly thinking about snakes and sharks (what is it with Kevin Spacey and sharks? Before Horrible Bosses there was his evil Hollywood producer character, Buddy Ackerman, in Swimming with Sharks, uttering gems like “If you were in my toilet, I wouldn't bother flushing it.”). Frank has no allegiances, feels no one’s pain, and seemingly acts with no emotion beyond self-preservation. He conveys this reptilian-ness with a coiled stillness and hardly any blinking, causing his eyes to appear as dark as unreflecting holes. Of his wife, Claire, he says, “I love that woman…more than a shark loves blood.”

Paradoxically, though, Frank’s sociopathic lack of empathy is what enables him to use “emotional intelligence” and “relationship management” at an incredibly sophisticated level. When his cabinet appointment is yanked away, he goes into action, coolly lining up his pawns and gaining power over them, as part of the grand strategy to bring down his enemies.

Frank also cultivates allies, strategically fertilizing the field with bullshit. A malignant inversion of the paragon, Frank has an unerring instinct for what motivates people. Except in this case, the assumption is that people are driven by greed, fear, ego and ambition, the evil twins of the leadership industry’s presumptions of generosity, courage, humility and altruism.

Like any paragon, Frank’s first priority is always to determine what the other person needs. By manipulating pawns like Peter Russo, a drug-addicted congressman whom Frank saved from scandal, Frank can deliver the right favor in exchange for meeting his own goals. Peter is a nice guy, flawed but totally sympathetic. He’s a potential paragon, but in this world, paragons are chumps---or chum.

And does Frank ever manage relationships! In episode 4, Frank gains crucial votes to pass a high-profile education bill (and thereby cement the president’s trust) by ensuring that a shipyard employing thousands in a major caucus leader’s district will not get shut down. He does this by getting that shipyard off a list of proposed budget cuts, in exchange for a different shipyard employing thousands in Peter’s district. As someone who owes his continued career to Frank, Peter has no choice but to cave.

The only character in House of Cards who is a bigger asshole than Frank is his wife, Claire. Played by Robin Wright, Claire is a gorgeous, steel-jawed blonde whose public role as a do-gooder (she heads a clean water charity) is disturbingly at variance with her private ruthlessness.
In episode 2, Claire loses a large donation. It’s disappointing, but also the perfect opportunity to fire a large number of long-time employees who are less than 100% committed to her plan to expand the charity’s well-digging efforts overseas. After forcing her devoted colleague Evelyn to drop the axe, Claire crisply fires Evelyn herself who, at age 59, has painfully few options. If Frank is all cartilage, Claire is made of stone---hard, cold, and utterly opaque. Alone among the women in the plot, Claire’s power seems to emanate from her own self-control, not as a by-product of her association with a man.

Zoe Barnes is the Other Woman in Frank’s life; an ambitious young reporter played by Kate Mara. In contrast with the statuesque, impeccable Claire, Zoe is small and wild, with a kid’s ponytail and a crummy wardrobe. Zoe lives in a cluttered apartment (when Claire pays her a visit late in the series, her nasty comment is “That’s nice…a fire escape.). For Frank and Claire, corruption inhabits pristine, palatial interiors with soaring ceilings and crystal chandeliers. Zoe’s mess indicates that she may be out of her league.

In a somewhat improbable move, Zoe enters Frank’s life by offering to trade ink for inside information. You know the second they meet that the two will also end up in bed together. Everything is about sex except sex,” Frank says at one point, “Sex is about power.” But in the House of Cards world, women have sex to gain power; men have it to exert the power they already have. When Zoe stops sleeping with Frank late in the season, she starts to seem increasingly powerless. She is no Claire.

At this point, someone might point out that in pop culture, some asshole leaders eventually get a comeuppance (e.g. Katherine Parker in Working Girl or all of the bosses in Horrible Bosses). Although season 1 of House of Cards ended without any such resolution, there are a lot of hints that it could be coming up in season 2. In episode 11, Frank has gone so far as to murder Peter, making it look like a suicide. Zoe, meanwhile, has turned on Frank and is trying to dig up dirt to expose him. There’s definitely a sense that the wheels are coming off the wagon.

This takes me back to that leadership training. While it’s possible that paragons are “better” for the world and their organizations, assholes are a whole lot more interesting. Think about the difference in between Satan and God in Paradise Lost. Assholes are unique and fascinating. Paragons are charmless at best. If television reflects, in some way, the dynamics in our actual lives, we’d do well to pay some attention to this.

Otherwise, our organizations will keep buying remedial programs from the likes of Ram Charan while we dream of being like Frank or Claire. The leadership industry is pure ideology in that sense---an imaginary solution to a real problem---and the problem is that, at some level, nobody loves a paragon.


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Anonymous said...

25k a day is absurd. thanx for that. I haven't seen this House of Cards but I remember the old one.