Management lessons from ‘House of Cards’

It’s a bit like ‘The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan’—if old Genghis weren’t such a softie.

Frank Underwood, the ruthless protagonist portrayed by Kevin Spacey in the Netflix series “House of Cards,” is not what most people would consider a model of upper management.

Sure, he lies, cheats, steals, and murders his way to the top, and he rarely shows remorse for his actions—but when you say it that way it sounds bad.

When you consider that Frank Underwood is a highly motivated employee in one of the most dysfunctional offices in modern history, you can glean important insights into what separates effective managers from ineffective ones.

Here are a few choice insights from Frank Underwood that will come in handy the next time you’re trying to engage your workforce:

1. “If you want to earn my loyalty, then you have to offer yours in return.”

Underwood had an archrival who tried to gain his political patronage through deception, so he calmly reminded his counterpart that one has to give respect to get it. Savvy managers also know this, which is why they demonstrate their loyalty daily by connecting with employees on a personal level, giving genuine praise for accomplishments and treating them as colleagues, not subordinates.

2. “I don’t want to assume. I want to know.”

Underwood wins his battles in Washington because he is obsessed with getting the real dirt on his colleagues. In a less diabolical sense, he doesn’t want to be the guy who assumes the wrong thing and misses the boat. Effective managers don’t assume anything—they listen closely to their employees, seeking first to understand, and then to be understood.

3. “People love an underdog, and people love someone who stands up after they’ve fallen.”

While giving the beleaguered president some advice on boosting his popularity, Underwood stumbles upon a universal truth about people—we respect and admire those who don’t let failure break their stride. Good managers know that every failure comes with a lesson, and they can build a stronger team by acknowledging and embracing it.

4. “I hate being kept in the dark… Waiting… Speculating… Useless.”

Underwood rarely has his finger off the pulse of Washington, so he is understandably frustrated when information is not readily available. Employees don’t like to be kept in the dark, either, and they begin to feel useless when communication breaks down. Engaging managers are generous with information and treat employees like owners, giving them a significant stake in the organization’s success.

5. “The nature of promises is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.”

Underwood can barely contain his surprise when he finds out his connection in the White House went back on a promise. Employees feel the sting, too, if they are given unclear expectations and moving goalposts. Successful managers understand the nature of promises and don’t make any they can’t keep.

Let’s be Frank

As they often say, you don’t become a tyrant without knowing what makes people tick. Though Underwood’s methods are always questionable and sometimes brutal, the man does get results.

A version of this article first appeared on Michael C. Fina’s blog.

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