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3 Powerful (and Ethical) Leadership Lessons from 'House of Cards'

Frank Underwood isn't a great person to emulate, but the popular Netflix show does teach some valuable management lessons.
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House of Cards has been called power-trip porn--and with good reason. Its main character, Frank Underwood, is the king of two-faced trickery. He'll give you a vigorous greeting with one hand and stab you in the back with the other. Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is the guy who will somehow convince anyone to do anything, no matter the cost. And perhaps that is why he reminds so many people of the worst PR professionals they've ever known.

I would argue that only a few outliers in PR--or any industry, for that matter--take the poisonous, evil, conniving approach of Underwood. But perhaps the rest of us should pay closer attention; there are leadership lessons to be gleaned from Frank's approach toward relationship building.

1. Learn the People Around You

Frank's attention to detail--names, birthdays, wives, districts, hobbies, and even weaknesses--is a powerful asset. But don't prey on the weaknesses; instead, note and understand people's core competencies to help them (not manipulate them).

For example, imagine your client is powerful, excitable, and slightly disorganized. It’s your job (and opportunity) to become the person who can bring organization and calm to his life. The same is true for the reporters with whom I have relationships. It's my job to learn about their specific beats and also the personal interests that can be gleaned through Twitter and actual, real conversations--that's valuable ammunition for any pitch.

2. Nobody Is Below You (and Respect Comes From Actions)

Frank is a regular customer at Freddy's BBQ--wonderful food in a terrible neighborhood. He treats Freddy the same way he does his fellow congressmen (OK, maybe better). He doesn't care about Freddy's pedigree; he cares about the ribs.

The lesson: Don't look down on people outside your industry (particularly those who are not-so-technical), as if they "don't understand" what they're doing and are thus inferior. In the PR industry, I'm always amazed to meet PR professionals who don't respect reporters because they A) make less money than them and/or B) don't "dress as well." Then there's the entire school of "Where did you go to college?" that somehow still exists. Sorry, but no degree makes you any better than anyone else on this planet.

3. Information Is Power

Underwood simply knows about things--a key trait of the majority whip. I find that many PR professionals let themselves fall into particular buckets of knowledge--be it skillsets or industries--with no intention of stepping outside their comfort zone. Frank's uncanny ability to manipulate people (something I don't condone) partially comes from the fact that he can engage with them on a personal and societal level. He knows about their lives, their struggles, their industries, the particular pain points for their constituencies, and how best to provide something to them.

His ill-gotten gains are boosted thanks to the fact that Frank Underwood is an immensely well-read and culturally-learned person. It's one thing to be able to talk about a particular industry--it's another to be able to take said industry and apply knowledge of the rest of the world to it.

If there's one thing I've learned from House of Cards, it's this: Your weaknesses can be powerful tools in the hands of the unscrupulous, and the best way to protect yourself is to know your biggest vulnerabilities and address them.

Last updated: Mar 5, 2014




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