The House of Cards Guide to Leadership
Nice guys never finish first.
This is probably the morale you take away from the protagonist of the wildly successful Netflix series, House of Cards, an overly ambitious, power hungry and manipulative congressman from South Carolina named Francis Underwood (played beautifully by Kevin Spacey). While mostly cliché, the show does a fantastically addictive job dramatizing the congressman’s accession to power on Capitol Hill as he maneuvers through the sea of egos and ambitions of fellow politicians. And while the congressman regularly employs a number of questionably unethical and immoral power grabs, he is remarkably effective in their execution.
1. Build a network that works for you.
Underwood understands well the playing field on which he games, and he heavily invests his time in surrounding himself with the people who can help him, even if at personal cost. More importantly, he doesn't waste time with and often removes people who are not useful or can ultimately hold him back from his goals. (Of course, I am not advocating that you use his methods to "remove" them.)
2. Understand people’s strengths and motivations.
Underwood excels at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the people he surrounds himself with, and he understands well that all of his peers in politics have ulterior motives. He leverages this knowledge to motivate and get the best (or worst, as the case may be) from these people and does what is necessary to get the right people in the right place at the right time.
3. Don't alienate a potential future ally.
Diplomacy is an important characteristic of any politician. Granted, Underwood’s diplomacy borders on maniacal manipulation, but the end goal is the same. Understanding the motives and ambitions of everyone around him, he carefully plods through the complicated waters of politics while furthering his own agenda. And while this may come at the cost of compromise or consolation, his long term goal is his only priority.
4. Always have a Plan B.
When Underwood's key ally is backed into a seemingly unwinnable situation, the Congressman says, "If you don’t like how the table is set, turn the table over." Being able to effectively control the conversation and, when necessary, turn the tables requires great skill, diplomacy and influence. Of course, Underwood is particularly effective in adding manipulation to the formula.
5. Stay focused on the end goal.
The congressman always puts his goals ahead of his emotions, with a stoic indifference to revenge, grunges and petty bickering. Ultimately, he has one goal (the White House), so even when faced with personal challenges and threats, he calculates his actions based on what will suit him long term.
Overall, Underwood teaches us that success comes from excruciatingly calculated and effectively executed long term strategies. And while you might feel guilty, or even a little sullied, for taking management and leadership tips from a cold and manipulating political stereotype, understand that you don’t need to be malicious in the execution. As you watch Underwood’s accession into power, there is a clear sense of impending doom. Implemented with empathy and compassion, these business lessons can be effectively leveraged in a good way, making you the good guy instead of the villain.
Because as we all know, in the end, nice guys do finish first.
Are you a House of Cards fan? Please share some of the business lessons you’ve learned from the show below.