Strategy, Innovation & Leadership LAB

House of Cards, a mirror for power and leadership

February 25, 2016

The new, fourth season of the popular House of Cards series will once more undoubtedly lead to a confrontation with the limits of conscience. The viewer will unavoidably be confronted with himself: everyone possesses the urge to gather power and sometimes spins off in the bend, analyzes organizational psychologist Oscar David.

On 4 March it will have come again: Netflix will present season 4 of its best known and universally celebrated series House of Cards. Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, will again receive a lot of attention from that day on. The key actor has already been immortalized: on February 23 the Smithsonian Institute in Washington added a portrait of Frank Underwood to its National Portrait Gallery. President Washington's portrait had to temporarily make room, but the museum management was willing to make the sacrifice.

A thoroughly ambitious leader

Whoever has seen the earlier seasons of House of Cards will by now have made more than just a passing acquaintance with Frank Underwood, otherwise known simply as Frank. In his merciless ambition, no bridge is too far in achieving and retaining his goal: the highest political office in Washington. This in itself should be an appealing starting point for any leader: no results without an ambition. But the way in which Frank sets to work, is enough to terrify most people. For instance, during episode 1 of the first season, it already became clear how Frank solved the problem of a dog that had been run over at his door: without telling the owner, he killed it. This sets the tone. Whoever is a hindrance to him, is mercilessly slaughtered.

Cold-blooded murderer

Take for instance the murdered Peter Russo, the democrat from Pennsylvania and governor candidate. The official version of his death is suicide by carbon dioxide poisoning. In reality, he has been murdered by Frank. Frank has someone in mind for the now vacant position of candidate: the vice president. After seduction and manipulation by Frank, he decides to give up his position and run for governor. This means that Frank can take over his position as VP. But that's not the end of it. The next murder the viewer witnesses concerns Zoë, a journalist with whom Frank has had an affair for some time. When it becomes apparent that she had too much incriminating information about the murder of Peter Russo, Frank throws her in front of the metro.

Our reptilian brain craves for power

Power is fascinating. Deep inside every brain there is a reptilian brain that wants to dominate and define. But we also want leaders to act with integrity and not to misuse their power. It is often difficult to find the proper nuance here. Somewhere we all think black and white. Whether it be politicians or top managers: we all too easily assume the "good guy" and the "bad guy" scenarios. This always places the perpetrator outside of us. And so we ourselves, and our friends and loved ones, remain unaffected. House of Cards confirms the picture that power and its misuse are closely related and conflict with integrity. However, the series doesn't make it easy for the viewer to keep hold of his black and white picture. Frank is not simply bad, and the viewer is not altogether good.


Whether we like it or not, and however much we may disapprove of Frank's behavior, we also start to sympathize with him. The makers of the series have thought up a brilliant idea: during the series, Frank regularly speaks confidentially to the viewer and shares his thoughts and feelings, as if the viewer were his friend, colleague or coach. The viewer does not become an accomplice, but as Frank's confidant we are at least involved. In this way, the viewer is unavoidably confronted with himself: we acquire sympathy for Frank as a person while at the same time we disapprove of his behavior.

A mirror for leaders

So House of Cards transcends the usual scenario of the villain and the hero. Good and bad meet each other, bringing the series frighteningly close to our own lives: everyone possesses the urge to gather power and sometimes spins off in the bend. Leaders are always confronted with the dilemma if, and if so when, the end justifies the means. Frank is merciless in this respect. Nothing human is strange for him, whether it be manipulation, seduction, blackmail or murder. But what is the limit? And what about the leaders? 

Three forms of power

I distinguish between three forms of power: power 1.0 leadership, power 2.0 leadership and power 3.0 leadership.

  1. Frank is indisputably in category 1.0: this form of power is the power of the strongest or the survival of the fittest. It is instinct-driven power whereby the goal is to get to the top of the monkey's rock, regardless of the price. It is a form of power which quickly leads to corruption, because there is no other goal than personal ambition.
  2. Power 2.0 leadership assumes checks and balances. These are leaders who make rules, keep to them and check that others keep to them too. It is a correct and useful manner of leadership which avoids corruption, but is generally less innovative.
  3. Power 3.0 leadership is based on values which serve a higher cause. It is not about "power over" but about the power of accomplishing something in connection with the surroundings, or the "power to".

No one is a blank sheet of paper, everyone sometimes does something or neglects to do something which on reflection one would do differently next time. Season 4 of House of Cards will be another confrontation with the limits of conscience. Frank is a mirror for leaders to help them reflect about integrity and power and how to subsequently deal with it.

Oscar DavidOscar David is core lecturer at the TIAS Senior Executive Program, a program for ambitious senior professionals at TIAS School for Business and Society.

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