How Not to Lead: 4 Lessons from Frank Underwood

By: Rodney Evans

Photo via under Creative Commons License

My travel schedule is pretty hectic, but a few cancelled meetings at the end of last week placed me at home in North Carolina, where I finally finished the most recent season of House of Cards. A devotee of the series since the beginning, I’ve found Frank Underwood’s fall from omnipotence to impotence totally riveting.

For anyone who studies leadership, Frank’s actions throughout season three highlight a failure to master the fundamentals key to leadership success. They serve as a study of the risks of clinging to a hostile, outdated strategy. Most importantly, these actions demonstrate that in the modern operating environment, adaptability is the key to success.

Although Frank appears ever the cunning leader, he struggles with the most basic leadership fundamentals. From his inability to rally a competent team, to his censorship of dissent, to his refusal to meaningfully address his own flaws, Frank finds the leadership building blocks more fit for stumbling.

1) Relationships can’t be bought

Frank consistently fails to create meaningful relationships with the people around him. He finds the vulnerability, and empathy necessary to build trust contemptible. In place of building relationships, he depends on extrinsic motivators like money, position, blackmail, and bullying to pay off his team. But great leaders don’t rely on extrinsic motivation. When people are treated as variables in a transaction, they behave accordingly. As he watches Remy Danton, Jackie Sharpe, and ultimately his own wife abandon him, Frank should learn a valuable lesson: you can’t buy loyalty, you can only rent it.

2) You can’t lead in a vacuum

Frank steamrolls both his opponents and his own team members, paving over anyone who disagrees.

He unilaterally appoints his wife to be the UN Ambassador, against the wishes of Congress, angering would-be allies and ultimately setting Claire up to fail. He raids the FEMA disaster fund to muscle his Amworks job program into existence, teetering on the brink of impeachment and leaving the population unprotected in the face of natural disaster.

Even on his own team, Frank cuts off conversations that don’t support his view and disregards those who warn against his corrosive policies. In a cabinet meeting, he demands a dissenter resign on the spot, sending a clear message to the rest of the team.

Real leaders listen, ask for input, hear hard truths, heed recommendations, and are transparent in their decisions. Frank models none of these behaviors. In his desperation not to show weakness, Frank leads in a vacuum, with his uninformed decisions often yielding disastrous consequences.

3) Control is a myth

Fittingly one of Frank’s hobbies is painting and arranging tin soldiers. As Frank oversees the static battlefield, he can control and position every little piece. Frank clings to this control as a substitute for true leadership. In the dynamic world of the presidency, there are far too many pieces to oversee, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.

Effective leaders aren’t obsessed with control — they empower those around them and delegate decision-making authority to the lowest possible level. That empowerment relies on trust and the ability to cede control.

4) Failing to adapt is not an option

As his inner circle unravels and his poll numbers plummet, Frank reaches the season finale facing an uphill battle to re-election, seemingly alone. His tactics have failed, and yet Frank still seems poised to continue down the same path.

Why does Frank insist on repeating his mistakes and maintaining course after so many missteps? Ultimately, that insistence stems from a lack of self-awareness. Self-awareness helps us continually scan the environment for cues and to adjust our course or optimize our decisions in response.

While Frank happily reveals his own flaws to the audience, his self-awareness never translates beyond soliloquy. Frank takes pride in disregarding or shutting out the perceptions of those who attempt to disillusion him of his own greatness. In doing so, he must rely solely on his own manipulative excellence to address problems, eliminating his opportunity to adapt.

Many times the failings of leaders can be traced back to their reliance on functional ability and lack of a refined and well-practiced general leadership skillset. When the unpredictable happens outside of their domain of expertise, they cannot rely upon fundamentals like communication, decision-making, and connecting to mobilize resources and solve problems.

My Facebook, twitter, and RSS feeds are filled with articles on keeping up with the pace of change, acknowledging the interconnectedness and unpredictability in our working lives. We all see the consequences: extinction of industry giants, succession crises at the top of successful organizations, a government often halted by gridlock. We work harder, seek new efficiencies, reorganize again, invest in innovation, and still we can’t outpace the evolution of the environment.

Why is it so hard for us to adapt? When we struggle with leadership fundamentals and refuse to accept criticism to increase self-awareness, we’re left with no means to improve. Instead we fall back on our functional excellence, hoping that redoubling our efforts while increasing efficiency will solve our problems. Doubling our bets isn’t a winning strategy — we need to walk away from the table and try something new.

In the first season, we learned that Frank gave Remy a watch inscribed with a Winston Churchill quote: “To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.” After Remy quits in disgust, he returns the watch. For Frank’s sake, let’s hope he can heed his own advice.

Rodney Evans is the Chief Innovation Officer of McChrystal Group, an elite management and leadership consultancy that helps organizations become more adaptive in complex environments.

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