As many of us start binge watching the third season of Netflix’s House of Cards, which aired last week, it’s clear that top dogs from Washington to Silicon Valley and everywhere in between can identify, at least to some extent, with the main character, Frank Underwood. The scheming politico obsessed with keeping his post in the Oval Office has few, if any, friends, and countless enemies and frenemies, but viewers actually have much to learn from Underwood.
Even though he would probably have said of this piece, “If you need a magazine to tell you how to be a good leader, then you don’t belong in the leader’s chair at all,” the show serves as a rich source of leadership advice for ambitious men and women looking to navigate and conquer the corridors of power — not just in politics, but in the business world, too.
So here are 5 leadership lessons from House of Cards:
Never leave your wingman (or woman)
A central arc of House of Cards is the love-hate relationship between Frank and his wife Claire, who represent the ultimate yin and yang of a power partnership – two quirky souls who echo each other’s neuroses and potential to help the partnership reach great heights. Yet when either of them feels abandoned, that glorious marriage quickly turns into a destructive dance of betrayal. In the current season, Frank strips Claire of her ambassadorship to the UN for his own gain. Even though she agrees, it sows the seed of distrust between the two and risks losing Frank his only real ally and confidant, not to mention his biggest source of moral strength. So remember that no matter what the stakes or what happens, never leave your wingman (or woman). Flying solo may be satisfying for the ego but a great co-pilot can help you weather much bigger storms and fly much further than you can by yourself.
Be careful what you reveal, even to your friends
In the first two seasons, Frank confides sensitive information to an investigative reporter who is willing to help him destroy his opponents on Capitol Hill. But when the reporter becomes a threat to himself, he has to take drastic measures to silence her. In the new season, he fears that a former right-hand man might betray him by selling incriminating information about Claire to a political challenger. When playing power games, indiscretions are never a good idea. That doesn’t mean you should harm anyone to protect yourself, but smart leaders know that even trusted friends can sometimes become enemies, and therefore hold their cards close to their vest at all times. Unlike Frank, don’t give ammunition to anyone who could use it against you on a rainy day, even if the short-term gain is tempting.
Treat your subordinates with respect
One of the guilty pleasures of the show is watching Frank be the natural tyrant that he is and keep everyone, especially his underlings, under strict control. It’s a fantasy most of us have but never get to live out (thankfully). It also, however, has its limits, which Frank discovers to his detriment when he publicly humiliates his choice for vice presidential running mate and the former protégé turns against him in a spectacular way. The lesson here is that while it’s necessary for leaders to exert authority and demand loyalty, it’s also necessary for them to treat everyone with respect and dignity. The moment that line is crossed, even the most diehard of supporters can become bitter nemeses, and even the most capable of leaders can’t perform without a dedicated team.
Be a problem solver
Frank Underwood doesn’t waste much time feeling bad about setbacks. In a perfect display of this crucial ability of a leader to find solutions instead of complaining about problems, when his party’s leadership refuses to back him for a Presidential run in 2016, Frank turns the tables by dropping his immediate demand and focusing all his energy on an ambitious plan to create jobs for every American. His calculation is simple but potent. When confronted with an impossible obstacle, he decides to walk around the obstacle (by courting voters directly) instead of trying to punch his way through it. This episode, like others in previous seasons, demonstrates clearly that Frank is not just resilient but capable of finding even greater opportunity in a setback, as his America Works plan evolves into a potential legacy (if not necessarily a home run) over the course of the season. That’s great leadership.
Nothing lasts forever
In clever symbolism, the third season of House of Cards shows Buddhist monks painstakingly create an intricate and beautiful mosaic with colored powder, only to wipe away the whole display when they’re done. This mirrors Frank and Claire’s relationship, which attains great complexity and beauty at times, only to crumble a part at others
The fact that nothing lasts forever is one that Frank doesn’t grasp. He alternately stumbles and blazes through his career, but is unable to find balance. He makes unnecessary mistakes because at some level he maintains the illusion of immortality. The best leaders realize that they are only as good as their performance and that arrogance is a fatal flaw. It makes you careless, self-centered, non-compromising, and prone to impulsive action – which in turn can lose you allies, create more enemies, and pave the way for your downfall.
Without giving away anything, Frank finds himself at just such a crossroads by the end of this season. The question is whether he will modify his ways or continue to hurtle obliviously, possibly to nowhere? But then, Frank Underwood would probably never read an article like this, so what will happen in season four is anyone’s guess.
Sanjay Sanghoee is a business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, as well as at hedge fund Ramius Capital. He holds an MBA from Columbia Business School.