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Five Leadership Lessons of Frank Underwood

| October 6, 2015

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, The Five Leadership Lessons of Frank Underwood, is an essay written by Dustin Atkins last June.  Dustin is the Director of IT, Sponsored Research & Strategic Communications at Clemson University and is an alumnus of the MOR Leaders Program.

In the spirit of bringing you all to South Carolina, I thought I would reflect on both the leadership lessons we have learned through the MOR program as well as some lessons given to us by our favorite (fictional) South Carolina politician, Frank Underwood.  For those of you who are avid House of Cards fans – and I recommend anyone wanting to learn more about power and influence watch this show – Frank Underwood seems to usually embody the form of a leader we don’t want to be.  He’s cunning, at times maniacal, and is always maneuvering to get his way – even eliminating those who continue to be roadblocks to his plans.

However, there are times when Underwood provides glimpses of leadership principles we all can relate to, and I thought I’d reflect on how House of Cards and MOR intersect to bring some of our learnings full circle.  The italicized text below marks quotes from Underwood on the show.

1.  Inaction is toxic.  “[T]he country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

This is of course a quote originating from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but it reflects the challenge many of us have as leaders.  Ultimately, it’s our duty as leaders to keep moving forward, even if we are unsure if the path we’re on will lead to guaranteed success.  Sometimes, it’s easier to do nothing than take the risk of doing anything at all.  That may seem like it flies in the face of all of the themes we encounter at MOR, but it seems to often be the default setting of many employees, organizations, and even leaders.  We need to make sure that our default setting is always action, that we are clear in our decision-making, and that we force ourselves out of our comfort zones when it’s time to make a difficult decision.  If we don’t step up, who will?

2.  Change is up to you.  “If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.” 

We all have the opportunity to either embrace change or to reject it.  We can be a servant to the things that happen to us, or we can let them serve us through learning from our experiences. This quote from the first season of House of Cards seems to reflect this sentiment.  In other words, if you don’t like the direction your career, life, or relationships are going, turn over the table and reset.  Make a conscious effort to reconsider how you are perceived by others, where you could improve your emotional intelligence, and self-assess to identify and remedy the shortcomings that are preventing you from going to that next level.

3.  Choose to lead.  “There are two types of Vice Presidents:  Doormats and matadors.  Which do you think I intend to be?” 

Leaders often times have a choice when faced with a new position, a new challenge, or a new way of thinking – either toe the line with the status quo, or lead change.  It can be easier to default to the former, but we all know that is not the leaderly thing to do.  Altogether different from managing and doing – which I would argue implements key decisions rather than makes them – leading requires that a person recognizes where the organization or team should be going, and steers the ship to get it there.  However, just like with anything else in life worth doing, it is a daily choice and we must be cognizant of that and reflect on what that means for us as we go about our hectic schedules.

4.  Value your word.  “The nature of promises, Linda, is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.” 

As leaders, it is very important to, as the old saying goes, under-promise and over-deliver (rather than the other way around).  I think we all at times have a tendency to commit to things either without getting all of the necessary information or without taking into account our already full plates.  This can inevitably lead to a lack of credibility with your peers, your boss, and your team if you build a reputation for not following through on your promises.  I’ll be the first to say I’ve been guilty of taking on too much before, but have learned to ensure I’m getting the right information so that I can a.) decide whether or not the thing is something I need to be doing, and b.) what the desired timeline is so that I can effectively prioritize my other projects.  I recall Brad Englert’s talk while we were at the University of Texas, Austin this past January, and his comment about his boss calling in a panic for a report – and Brad asking “when do you need it by?” I’ve tried to condition myself to ask this question each time a new project or request comes across my desk so that I can better prioritize my time and not assume urgency where there is none.

5.  Feedback is a gift.  “It is so refreshing to work with someone who will throw a saddle on a gift horse rather than look it in the mouth.”  

I know this lesson isn’t original to me (thanks MOR!), but I really think this is one of the most important lessons we’ve learned thus far. Some of you may not know the adage of “looking a gift horse in the mouth,” but it can be simply defined as someone who finds fault with something that has been received as a gift or favor.  I think we often times want to respond to and attempt to negate critical feedback.  However, we have to take a step back and realize that feedback, positive or negative, right or wrong, is a gift no matter which way you slice it – so long as the feedback is coming from another person in the context of helpfulness and candor.  Even if someone’s feedback stings a bit and might be completely off-base, we have to realize that in many cases, perception is reality, and it’s up to us to change how we act in order to change how we are perceived by others.

In the coming week, think about the five lessons Dustin has reviewed.  Perhaps you might pick one for the week and focus on it choosing to make greater use of the underlying principle.  Then you might pick a second one next week, etc. leading to you being a stronger leader as you move forward.

Make it a great week.  .  .  .    jim