On "Homeland," Good Drama Breeds Bad Leaders

by Bill Murphy Jr.
Originally Published: 

Why? Because life imitates art, and real-life leaders often take their examples from fiction (unfortunately and often unwittingly). So while Hollywood is in love with drama, good leadership eschews it, and yet it gets played out in workplaces across the country.

I’m a fan of Homeland, the Showtime drama starring Clare Danes as CIA operative Carrie Mathison, so we’ll use it as an example. The show is better now that Brody is dead and gone, and yet it’s falling into the trap of having protagonist Carrie literally (yes, I said literally) do everything. Need someone to fly to Iran personally for a mission? Carrie is up for it. Need someone to blackmail the CIA director into giving her a preferred post? She’s on it. Mentoring people who work for her and motivating a team toward a thoughtful goal? Yeah, not so much.

Granted, Carrie’s struggles with bipolar disorder make the dynamic stand out on Homeland, but we can apply this analysis to just about everything from police dramas to sitcoms. If there’s a leader in the story, everything revolves around him or her—which is the exact opposite of what a good leader wants in real life. Would you really be inspired by and want to follow a leader who has the following traits?

1. Can’t delegate

Effective leaders learn to delegate things to others on their teams. This requires trust—but it’s essential. In Hollywood, however, the hero always takes on everything him- or herself, and let’s be honest, Carrie Mathison takes this to a whole new level. She has just one trusted female minion that we can find—and when that woman can’t seduce a Pakistani medical student that she wants to recruit as a spy, Carrie steps up and does it herself.

2. Doesn’t communicate

Leaders’ words are among their most important tools, which means that if they’re not communicating effectively, they’re failing. A team that doesn’t know its ultimate goal and have a good understanding of the plan to get there probably won’t succeed.

But on Homeland and in Hollywood in general, the hero is always alone—sometimes dark and brooding. Homeland example: Carrie Mathison spent the first part of last season feigning mental illness and locked away in a psych ward, trying to recruit an Iranian spy—keeping the secret from everyone except her one patron in the CIA.

3. Lacks transparency

A great leader understands that demonstrating transparency shows respect for other people and helps them do good work. Less confident leaders hoard information like a valuable commodity, because they’re afraid that sharing it will give up power to others.

How many Hollywood plots turn on exactly this kind of dynamic, in which the leader hides the ball from other characters (and the audience) before making a dramatic revelation that shows he or she knew what was going on all along? Carrie is pretty much the worst at this. You could do a spinoff focusing only on the secrets she keeps from the people she works with.

4. Can’t think strategically

Good planning starts by identifying a smart objective, working backward to your current position, and figuring out the steps that will get you to where you want to go. This is easy to articulate but difficult to execute, and as a result, a lot of leaders wind up chasing interesting or promising strategies without truly considering how they relate to the ultimate goals.

If we had a Pakistani rupee for every time Carrie learns some new information and says something like, “This changes everything” before heading off in a completely different direction—well, we’d have a lot of rupees (but not that much money since the exchange rate is currently about 1,000 rupees to the dollar. Still, you get the point).

5. Doesn’t trust anyone

If you can’t trust the people you’re working with, chances are you shouldn’t be working with them. Granted, our example here is Homeland, which is all about espionage and terrorism, but Carrie’s lack of trust extends to virtually everyone in the CIA as well. When she heads to Islamabad this season as the new CIA station chief, for example, she mistrusts her colleagues so much that she recruits an entirely separate team and sets them up to work for her (without protection from the U.S. government). The end result is that the people who officially work with Carrie in the U.S. embassy don’t share information with her—and even wind up following her through the streets of Islamabad just to figure out what she’s up to.

6. Has no work-life balance

Three-quarters of Americans say that their families are “the most important, most satisfying element of their lives,” according to one study. While there are some Hollywood examples that reflect this—Modern Family leaps to mind—in most cases, Hollywood heroes’ families and personal lives are often treated as distractions at best.

Um, Carrie? So far her biggest relationship that we’ve seen has been with a turncoat U.S. Marine who killed the U.S. vice president and nearly blew up everyone in the American executive branch. She’s dumped her baby daughter on her long-suffering sister in order to take off around the world. Granted, this is baked right into her character’s story—Carrie is suffering from pretty severe mental illnesses that she keeps secret and more or less manages with pills and alcohol—but it’s hardly a sustainable method of leadership.

Bottom line, when Carrie calls and begs you in hushed but frantic tones to drop everything and head to Islamabad, it’s probably a bad idea. But it makes for good television.

photo: flickr/danielygo

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