What Designated Survivor Can Teach Us About Leadership

OK, I admit it: I’m a sucker for Jack Bauer. So when I heard Kiefer Sutherland – the actor who played Jack Bauer on the hit TV show 24, was staring in a new drama, I had to check it out.

I’m glad I did. Sutherland’s new show, Designated Survivor, had me intrigued right from the start. Boil it down to the core, and this show is all about leadership, which happens be a passion of mine.

Here’s the premise of the show: Tom Kirkman (played by Sutherland) is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and it’s the night of the President’s annual State of the Union address. Not only did the president’s speech fail to mention any of HUD’s initiatives, he was told earlier in the day the president planned to fire him. To top it off, Kirkman wasn’t even invited to attend; instead, he was the “designated survivor,” the person who becomes the leader of the free world in case something happens to the president, Congress and the rest of the president’s cabinet during the speech.

Of course, an attack is made on the U.S. Capitol and there are no known survivors, including the president. Kirkman is suddenly president of the United States.

Right away, he immediately learns an important lesson – it’s hard to be a leader when you’re not respected. Shortly after taking the oath of office, he overhears a White House staffer call him a “glorified real estate agent.” Plus, the chief of staff he inherits was the one who told him he was about to be fired. He’s ignored by top military brass, and even the president’s speechwriter tells him he’s in over his head.

Apparently, Kirkman is the Rodney Dangerfield of president’s – he can’t get no respect.

I’m not sure how he managed it, but Kirkman didn’t blow up, threaten anyone or shy away from responsibility. He paused to process the information, evaluate his role in the situation and immediately went into action mode to gain the respect of those around him.

Respect is earned, not given – even when you’re the president of the United States. That’s something all leaders should think about.

I plan on watching the show on a regular basis, and as I do I’ll share my thoughts on how Kirkman is handling his new leadership position. From time to time, we’ll examine what he does well and what he should have done better. It takes many skills to be a good leader, a lesson I’m sure we’ll learn as we follow the story of the designated survivor.

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