I binged on House of Cards last weekend. This is the 13-episode Netflix political drama (derived from the BBC series of the same name) about House Majority Whip Francis Underwood’s venal scheming and manipulation as he works his way to power in Washington. It’s not a very pleasant series: nobody is very nice, everyone uses everyone else, and even the sympathetic characters come off as hopeless.
But it does get me thinking about the ways in which I try to gain power, or try to tilt those who have power to act to my own advantage..
My relationship with power, as one of my angel investors once told me, is complicated. On the one hand, I know and can do lots of things, have a good record of accomplishment, and that gives me a foundation of authority. But, he observed, I also tend to be deferential and hesitant, overly rational and soft-hearted, too easily intimidated and too quick to try to see both sides.
In particular, I tend to avoid conflict, and to either take indirect or extended approaches to resolving it when a quick, face-to-face confrontation is necessary. I remember someone in college characterizing me as The Instigator: setting up actions but then stepping back to observe the results.
I prefer to think of myself s more of an Influencer.
The approach is valid, works for me generally, but I’m currently in situations here it simply won’t work.
One is a negotiation for an asset that likely enhances our product offering. I’ve established a relationship with the owners, made an assessment, put down an offer, been clear about my limits. However, the other side has been inconsistent in responding, used my offer to elicit interest from other parties, and is overvaluing the item out of sheer naiveté about what I’m able to do with it.
The other is a confrontation in which we are trying to wrest control from one person and vest it in another. We’ve discussed the need and the alternatives, put a brief, clear proposal out and have set limits around the process. While initially agreeing, the other side then had second thoughts and withdrew, angry. To take the emotion out of it,we sides lawyered up, and threats and demands are now ongoing.
Without a middle ground, both have moved me towards unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground where resolution depends on effective exercise of power.
Since my generation uses movies as a touchstone, this brings me around to thinking about House of Cards (Most people see fear as a weakness. It can be. Sometimes for my job, I have to put fear into people), Frost/Nixon (I shall come at you with everything I got, because the limelight can only shine on one of us. And for the other, it'll be the wilderness, with nothing and no one for company but those voices ringing in our head) or even Road House: (Never underestimate your opponent; Take it outside unless an immediate response is absolutely necessary; Always be nice, until it’s time to not be nice.)
‘Which really serves to convince me that this is not my style. Instead, I work from three principles:
- Be very clear and resolute about my position: know where the line is that I won’t back across.
- Believe and be prepared to walk away when and if that line is crossed, and
- Bring along experienced, objective, trustworthy help, and take their advice.
By doing what’s uncomfortable and trying new strategies when traditional strategies fail, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to resolve the problems in front of me (or learn to stay away from these tactics in the future).
It’s all adapting, learning, and rehearsal: Seth Godin wrote this week about how to prioritize time to drive business and personal improvement. Eliminate the things that don't matter, that you're never going to get better at or that you're already good at, and focus on:
- The important
- The things that you currently don't do very well
- The things that you're capable of doing a lot better if you invested effort and time
It’s all ‘way better than turning into soul-less Francis Underwood.