While the word ‘leadership’ is one of the most commonly used in the English language, you can also make a case for it being one of the most misunderstood. There are a number of statistics that contradict many of the perceived truths surrounding leadership, which in turn means that there are potentially hundreds of managers across the globe engaging in bad and disruptive habits. To make matters worse, only 29% of high performing individuals have the potential to effectively lead, meaning that there are also a large number of active managers who are relatively clueless in the workplace (which will probably comes as no surprise to most!)
Despite this plethora of bad habits and poorly qualified leaders, it is important to note that leadership is a skill that can be effectively learned over time. Although a degree of natural ability is necessary, there is ample opportunity to develop the fundamental communication and organisational skills that can help you transition into a successful leader. This identifies a need for role models and mentors, who can subsequently play the role of Gordon Gekko to your enthusiastic Bud Fox.
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The Core Leadership Lessons that we can take from House of Cards
Given that success requires an innate ability to strategize and outmaneuver others, it is important to look for individuals who embody these qualities. Take Francis Underwood, for example, who rose to fame as the President of the United States on the dark and endlessly fascinating House of Cards television series. Now as a general rule, we would never advocate taking leadership lessons from a fictional machiavellian character, let alone one who uses the kind of questionable methods that would make battle-hardened dictators think twice.
Francis Underwood and his allies are an exception to this rule, however, as their determination; focus and ability to think creatively offer the kind of practical leadership lessons that transcend any course or educational program. By focusing on the theories and attitudes that underpin Underwood’s philosophy rather than his execution, you can become a more efficient leader of others and hopefully avoid a prolonged spell behind bars! So without further ado, here are the five of the key lessons taught by televisions most iconic politician:
1. Success demands Honest Reflection and Decisive Action
While you may not be a fan of Underwood’s brutally frank and occasionally hilarious camera asides, he is at least a man who has a keen appreciation of his peers and immediate challenges. He is also not averse to harsh introspection, and this type of honest reflection is a core aspect of leadership. Confronting an issue directly is the first step towards successfully addressing it, whether your business is suffering from reduced profitability or coping with a high turnover of staff.
To understand this in practical terms, you need only look at the insolvency industry and the impact that this has had on the UK economy. It saved an estimated 230,000 jobs in Britain alone during 2014, but it was only able to achieve this in instances where stricken leaders adopted a proactive approach and actively sought professional assistance. Although this represents an extreme example, it underlines how a desire to constantly improve and aggressively confront issues is the hallmark of effective leadership.
So while we don’t recommend making asides in daily conversation (it is less effective when there is no camera focused on you), it is worth making a daily journal to chart your issues and the way in which you responded to these.
2. Successful Leadership Requires Ruthless and Focused Decision Making
If there is one word that accurately describes Francis Underwood, it is ruthless. His counterparts may decide to use a few alternative adjectives, but from a neutral perspective you cannot deny his ability to execute ruthless and focused decision making. These are key aspects of successful leadership, as they enable you to make unpopular and carefully considered decisions that ultimately benefit you and your business. Driven by belief and fortitude rather than emotion, Underwood is clearly a leader who is focused on his objectives.
There is an interesting statistic from the London Business School which confirms this, by stating that an estimated 64% of executives who left one of Fortune’s Most Admired Companies subsequently joined a firm that was not ranked. So rather than basing their career decisions purely on statistics or popular opinion, they also utilised their instincts and knowledge to make bold and seemingly less obvious choices.
While your ascent into leadership will probably be less fraught and excruciating than Underwood’s (and hopefully include less killing), it will depend on your ability to execute long-term strategies and decisions that are ruthlessly conceived and focused on a singular goal. To help achieve this, start by visualising what you want to achieve and compacting this into a succinct mission statement and goal.
3. Your Professional Network Must be Loyal and Beneficial
Let’s be honest, we have all cringed at Underwood’s dark and downright strange relationship with his wife. While this is hardly an advert for marital bliss, however, there is no doubt that (for the most part) Underwood retains the unconditional support of his wife and this reflects the heavy investment that the character has made in developing a talented and committed network of allies.
A strong support network is imperative for any successful leader, as this helps them to accomplish more and plug any skill gaps or deficiencies that they may have in their armoury. Your immediate network must, therefore, be loyal and carefully selected; while they must possess a similar philosophy and a practical skill-set that adds value. Encouraging them to share your objectives and goals is also key, and this is best achieved through honest communication and an ability to motivate.
Are you on board yet? If President Underwood’s endorsement is not enough, consider that successful business managers spend an estimated 70% more time networking than their struggling counterparts, as they look to become more knowledgeable and challenge themselves on a daily basis.
4. You Must be Resilient and Always Have a ‘Plan B’
How many times has Francis Underwood been backed into a seemingly unwinnable situation? There are certainly too many for my two hands to count, and yet despite this, the man found himself thriving as U.S President at the end of the second season. This is not merely based on luck, as Underwood’s tireless dedication and resilience in the face of adversity and ability to think under pressure offers him a critical advantage over his rivals.
Resilience is arguably the most sought after leadership quality, whether you are trying to maintain a position of strength or make yourself distinguishable in a crowd of aspiring entrepreneurs. It has its origins in the so-called ‘fight or flight’ process in the reptilian brain, which although extremely primitive remains influential in contemporary business. More specifically, those faced with hardship must either strategize and strive to recover or abandon their position and leave the challenges of leadership behind.
The ability to think clearly and creatively when under this kind of pressure is also crucial, as it enables you to quickly formulate alternative strategies that can help you to rebuild. It is also worth developing backup plans and strategies in a proactive manner, however, as you look to pre-empt potential issues and solutions before they are required.
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While this article probably needs a caveat to discourage anyone from following the example of Francis Underwood too closely, it is surely enough to distinguish between the theory of leadership and its practical execution. By following the underlying rules of leadership and understanding how these impact on successful individuals, you can take invaluable lessons and achieve all of your career goals. As for the execution, it is probably better to play it safe and do the opposite of President Underwood!