5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from Frank Underwood

As the political scene heats up in the United States, I can’t help but thinking about two of my favorite political aspirants to the US presidency…Frank and Claire Underwood. I am latecomer to this television drama House of Cards and have admittedly been binge-watching this fictional drama while the actual presidential race drama escalated in New Hampshire, just 10 miles away.

For those uninitiated or uninterested, Frank Underwood was a United States congressman who manipulated his rise to the vice presidency and soon after, presidency, through lying, deception, cruelty and even murder! He is cold-hearted, ruthless and just plain BAD. But…despite his tactics and lack of ethics, he has demonstrated some powerful leadership behaviors that allowed him to accomplish his goals. Can we look past how despicable he is (along with his wife Claire) and shine the spotlight on five leadership behaviors that we can almost admire? Here’s what I have learned.

Stay focused on the Big Picture

“There can be no false steps now.  The higher up the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”

Frank and Claire have goals and they have a plan. And, they don’t let any “small stuff” prevent them from working toward their goals. They get up early, stay up late, and work with people who can help them achieve their ultimate goals.

Confident leaders stay focused. They focus on what they can influence, prepare for the unknown, and deal with what comes up as they progress to the ultimate goals.


“Every Tuesday I sit down with the speaker and the majority leader to discuss the week’s agenda. Well, ‘discuss’ is probably the wrong word…they talk while I imagine their lightly-salted faces frying in a skillet.”

Frank (and Claire) are both excellent listeners and expert at observation. They look people directly in the eye. They make others feel as though they have been heard…whether it is the Secret Service man who protects them, the leader of Russia, or a local reporter. They understand what motivates the people around them and they use that information to move their vision forward.

Great leaders are great listeners; they not only hear the words, but are also intuitive about the real message. They recognize they gain knowledge and wisdom by listening, not talking.

Demonstrate Personal Courage

“I must not lose my resolve. I will march forward, even if I have to do so alone.”

Frank has no shortage of personal courage. Time and again, he finds himself deserted – his followers’ confidence and trust in him falters (and with good reason). Yet, he continues to have faith (okay, arrogance too) in himself and his goals. He marches on without losing resolve. For better or worse, he consistently demonstrates personal courage.

Personal courage is often a key trait of those in leadership. Courageous leaders act on their beliefs, knowing it may cause them pain or be unpopular or even risky. Courage is about challenging one’s comfort zone and facing your fears.

 Be Innovative

“To Improve is to Change. To Perfect is to Change Often.”

When Congress blocks funding for Underwood’s pet jobs program, AmericaWorks, Frank changes tactics and takes money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That’s just one example of his innovative approaches; he constantly changes rules, practices and people to promote his agenda. He finds opportunities in his setbacks. While his tactics are often disgusting, he gets results from constantly innovating!

In today’s highly challenging and dynamic environment, stand still and your company’s market share will quickly be eroded by ambitious competitors. Continuous innovation is necessary for progress and profit. Business leaders need to support innovative efforts by “walking the talk” and providing opportunities and resources for innovation. Leading and sustaining innovation means balancing organizational improvement with a culture willing to change.

Show Respect

“It only takes ten seconds to crush a man’s ambitions.”

Frank has little respect for either people or things. He urinates on his father’s grave and spits at a statue of Jesus in a church. (Oh wait…does he EVER show respect?) He is a regular customer at Freddy’s BBQ—outstanding ribs in a little shack in a terrible neighborhood. He treats Freddy the same way (actually better) he treats his fellow politicians. (That’s a tiny bit of respect, isn’t it?)

Leaders who show respect, earn respect. To earn respect, leaders genuinely care for others. Other behaviors that demonstrate respect are: be consistent, be punctual, be responsive, and be comfortable with being wrong. Being respectful includes treating all people with respect, regardless of their stature, or if they make a mistake.

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