Machiavellian management: Business lessons from House of Cards

Like Frank Underwood, never underestimate the power of your network, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 29 Apr 2015

‘Everyone sees what you appear to be; few experience what you really are.’ - Machiavelli

If the above statement is to be believed and the Underwoods and Machiavellis of this world move among us, then, sinister as it may be, the entrepreneur must learn to navigate a world in which deceit runs rampant.

Machiavelli, the much-maligned political strategist from the 15th century, remains one of the most controversial and divisive figures in the world of business today. Many a naive entrepreneur disregards the importance of karma and reputation, and reads The Prince as if it were a self-help manual. Others shun his teachings and criticise such manipulative thought processes. Neither approach is correct.

Those that watch the fascinating political drama House of Cards will find Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, and his tactics equally polarising. For an absent minded moment you may admire him, but you then will find yourself having to pause the stream (thanks Netflix) to take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror.

Underwood has many of the characteristics vital for success, although he chooses to use them in a malicious way. He fights what many strategists would call indirect warfare, not hitting the target front-and-centre, but achieving his aims through underhandedness and back-channels. His power tactics are a modern day manifestation of the Machiavellian mantra: ‘The end justifies the means.’

Watching House of Cards can certainly be a harrowing experience, but there are actually some valuable lessons entrepreneurs can learn from Underwood.

‘Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source the higher your property value.’

Entrepreneurs should never underestimate the power of their network. In House of Cards, Underwood uses his connections to transcend Congress and become a member of the political elite.

The people around you are valuable resources, with their own skills, levels of access, and unique motivations. Understand what drives the key people around you, and you can unlock the latent power in the complex and hard-to-navigate web that is your own network. Underwood is exceptional at this - being able to detect what people around him want and exerting his influence by playing to those aspirations.

A sadistic, deplorable example of this is found in his relationship with Zoe Barnes. Underwood recognises the hunger in Barnes, an aspirational reporter who is willing to go that extra mile for a ‘scoop’, but falls foul of characters willing to go further then her to keep their secrets secret.

‘I've worked too hard to get in arms reach of the prize only to have my hand cut off before I seize it?’

Early in the House of Cards saga, Underwood discovers that his bid to become a member of cabinet has been foiled by an equally devious play for power by another politician. The news is devastating. Many would have viewed it as the ultimate defeat.

Instead, Underwood is able to gaze beyond the rain and manages to transform his defeat into an opportunity. He uses the setback to reposition himself and sets his Machiavellian plan to regain power in motion.

Spacey’s character isn’t an entrepreneur in the business sense, but this resilience and opportunism certainly showcases his entrepreneurial flair. Like Underwood, entrepreneurs are essentially zombies - no matter how many times you shoot them, they just pick themselves up and keep coming at you.

‘That’s how you devour a whale, Doug - one bite at a time.’

Entrepreneurs are ambitious people by nature. Sometimes, an entrepreneur's hunger for success can turn into impatience. When you have a long term vision for a company and are trying to envisage it in five years time, it can be frustrating to be dragged down to the mundane reality of the startup world.

Often, where your company is today (three desks and minuscule, unpredictable revenue) is far less appealing than the exotic image you have in your mind of your future business (your own, branded HQ building, 100+ staff in multiple cities, hyper growth in revenues, multiple exit options). But, as Underwood succinctly points out, you have can’t eat a whale in one go. You must develop the ability to manage the ‘boring’ micro and the ‘exotic’ macro.

‘From this moment on you are a rock. You absorb nothing, you say nothing and nothing breaks you.’

As a business leader, you must be strong and rational, particularly in a situation when emotions are on edge. There are times in business when the stakes are high, your team is confused and emotional and the decisions you make may upset certain members of staff.    

Acting like a ‘rock’ doesn’t mean that the leader loses their emotional intelligence. Quite the opposite - their emotional antennae must be fine tuned to detect and understand the sensitivities of the situation. But, once they have processed these, they must act decisively and not be clouded by emotions.

When Underwood kills a dog that has been run over in the opening scene of the series you see his ability to detach himself, while also showing empathy for the suffering of the animal. As he puts it, ‘There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that's only suffering.’

This shows that everything has a context. Underwood thinks that unpleasant action is sometimes necessary. There are times when business is the same.

Although Underwood is a despicable character, he possesses some truly astounding skills, manoeuvring through elite political circles as if on a chessboard.  

What Underwood has in droves is a profound knowledge of self. He knows exactly what he is and hides it to the best of his ability. Like him, the entrepreneur needs to be self-reflective and introspective in equal doses. Be aware of your strengths and your weaknesses. Know what is pleasant and unpleasant about yourself. As Underwood puts it, ‘Even Achilles was only as strong as his heel.’

But while there are certainly lessons to be learned from Underwood, I must warn my readers: heed his cautionary tale and try not to lose your soul in the pursuit of success.

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