SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers for all three seasons of House of Cards may be present. Yes, I said all three seasons; you’ve had a week and a half to get on Netflix and watch the new episodes…
House of Cards, Netflix’s most popular show and the first online-only show to win multiple Golden Globe Awards, (Robin Wright’s Best Actress- TV Drama; Kevin Spacey’s Best Actor- TV Drama) was always going to be a part of this post series. I loved House of Cards from the weekend that I watched the first season a little more than a year ago; in fact, I loved it so much I watched the second season the following weekend so the wait to the release of Season 3 on February 28th was a VERY long one for me. After finally getting a moment to breathe this past weekend, I decided to finally watc and between the hours of 6 AM and 11 PM on Sunday binged on the entire season- and I was so impressed by season 3 that I knew it was finally time for this piece to happen.
Why do I love House of Cards so much? It’s a great show overall- it pulls the curtain back on the Beltway, ties in current issues in our society without feeling forced (from season 1’s highlighting the power select billionaires have on politics to season 3’s tensions with Russia), and introduces us to the luckiest (or unluckiest more recently) man to ever have become President on a television show: Francis “Frank” Underwood. As awful as Frank is, I have to admit I identified with him when I first started watching- his feeling stymied as a Congressman, desire to be more than he is and to use that power for (relative) good when he gets it, and above all his ability to be politically savvy all endeared me to him, making it hard to eventually despise him even though he royally screws up in Season 3 (I’ll get to that later). Moving from being the House Majority Whip to President in the span of a few months is a Herculean feat, and Frank seems to do it with ease over the course of three seasons. While I’m hoping no one works in an institution that is as politically volatile as the world Frank Underwood inhabits, having a good sense of politics is crucial for survival in the world of higher education (Bowman and Deal didn’t make politics the focus of one of their Four Frames for nothing) and we can all benefit no matter where we are in our careers.
So, what does House of Cards actually teach us about being political in higher education?
Know the lay of the land and be ready to seize opportunities when they arise.
In the first season, Frank attaches himself to reporter Zoe Barnes to use her as a mouthpiece, takes up the education bill that President Walker wants passed and pulls out all of the stops to get it pushed through, and builds connections with power players like Raymond Tusk to get to the VP spot. Not to be outdone, Claire takes matters into her own hands in season 2 by building up a relationship with President Walker’s wife to gain information she gives Frank to use as ammo and by getting Frank to help her build her own political future in season 3 through a recess appointment to become the Ambassador to the United Nations. These two function as a power couple that put others like Fitz and Mellie Grant to shame- they’re ruthless, corrupt, but somehow they seem to continue to rise through the ranks and avoid major scrutiny (for a while, anyway). How do they do it? Claire seems to answer this question when approached on the campaign trail late in season 3- nearly 30 years of practice. The Underwoods study their opponents and allies, use smaller tasks as a way to build up to larger victories, and they never miss an opportunity to get ahead, no matter what the cost.
Clearly, I’m not suggesting that you commit murders, threaten your staff and push them out of their jobs, or cause national or international incidents to get ahead in your role- this behavior will catch up with you in time if you are doing it (even Frank and Claire aren’t exceptions to this). However, we can definitely learn from the playbook that Frank and Claire Underwood use throughout House of Cards. For one, make sure that you’re learning something new about the political climate of your school every day. Get to know people who are at all levels in the organization and find out what they’re working on, historical trends and traditions they’ve seen come and go, and what they perceive the operating philosophy of your institution to be when it comes to dealing with students and staff. Look for ways to take smaller assignments that you get that you may not even really want to the next level- as a supervisor, I feel more confident in giving someone bigger responsibilities when they do well with the smaller things- especially if it’s something they may not have been interested in at first. Doing a good job can give you the leverage to ask for and receive the green light to work on pet projects, and you gain skill sets that you can take elsewhere. Finally, make sure that you’re always thinking of your future and what the next step will be- don’t forget to be conscious of the work you’re doing now but always be searching for ways to fill in gaps in knowledge, skills and experience for that next role, and always be soft searching (looking at postings for roles one step ahead of you can give you a sense of what you need to get there).
You don’t work in Hollywood- all press is not good press, despite what you’ve heard.
As Frank continues on his journey to becoming the leader of the free world, he runs afoul of a number of journalists- from the ill-fated Zoe to Lucas Goodwin and eventually Ayla Sayyad and Kate Baldwin- and picks up bad press related to a variety of incidents, including the teacher’s strike (season 1), Claire’s recess appointment, the controversial AmericaWorks program, defunding FEMA, everything related to Russia in season 3 (too much to go into here) and jumping into the presidential race after declaring he wouldn’t run. At first, Frank is able to dodge serious harm and walks through the Capitol like human Teflon- but when he finally makes it to the Oval Office, the negative attention damages his credibility enough that by the end of season 3 he ends up having to fight off formidable primary challengers as a sitting president (compare this to being an internal candidate for a job with years of experience in danger of losing out to a new professional straight out of grad school for context), proving that the press may giveth, but they certainly do taketh away as well.
When our offices or institutions get into hot water, it can be tempting to write heightened attention and scrutiny from the press (meaning as small as the school paper and as big as the New York Times) off as a way to assuage our fears. However, one bad story can wreak havoc on a school if they don’t get in front of the story. Don’t believe me? Google “ SAE University of Oklahoma” and see the power of the media- if bad press can get a decades old fraternity chapter closed in hours, it’s clear the media isn’t to be trifled with. If you find yourself in one of these situations, your communications team and general counsel will end up becoming your new best friends- reach out to them and seek their advice, then follow it. It’s better to admit fault and take steps to change than it is to ignore and become irrelevant or extinct in some cases.
Don’t turn your back on your allies- doing stump speeches solo is not a good look.
If seasons 1 and 2 are all about Frank’s choices that get him into the White House and the relationships he builds to get there, season 3 definitely felt like a how-to in screwing up a good thing. In the span of 13 episodes, Frank manages to piss off Claire, Doug, Remy, Jackie, Heather Dunbar, the Russian president, and many, many more people who were on his side going in, making it incredibly hard to run a campaign to stay in the White House. The final scene of Season 3 (won’t spoil THIS because it’s WAY too important) makes clear how badly Frank has messed up, and if we get a Season 4 I’m not too sure it won’t end with him sitting on the curb outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue alone and embarrassed. Frank seems to forget the Platinum Rule of making one’s way to the top- remember everyone whom you had to step on to get there because you’ll meet the same faces when you’re on the way down.
Very few of us will make it to positions similar in stature to President of the United States, but in many cases we will have the opportunity to take leadership roles in our offices and institutions or will be given the privilege of moving on to newer, more advanced opportunities several times throughout our careers. For some of us, these moves may even happen internally due to support given by our personal Cabinet or Board of Directors. It’s critically important that we remember the people who help us get to our next destination and that we do our best to support them when we make it to where we want to be. You’ll figure out what this looks like for the people in your life- whether it’s a thank-you note, a recommendation or reference, a collaboration, or just continued contact and displays of appreciation, make sure that the people who matter to you know it and above all that you don’t do things to actively disrespect or injure them. Again, it’s likely that when things go wrong these are the folks you’ll turn to, so make sure that you still have them in your corner when you need them.
Finally, and most importantly, never pass up a chance to show off your personal style- especially when your initials allow you to do things like this:
I hope you’ve enjoyed my most recent entry of my What I Learned… series- please feel free to add comments or suggestions for future posts below! Keep an eye out for my PHEATURE Phriday post on OU’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon debacle- not one to be missed…