Frank Underwood on Power: Sustainable or a House of Cards?

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This week, Netflix releases the third season of their Emmy Award-winning political drama, House of Cards. If you are captivated (and who isn’t) by Frank Underwood’s quick ascent from Congressman to President, we can only assume that this next chapter will be just as compelling. When watching Frank, is there a better illustration of what leaders should NOT do? His manipulative, immoral actions are textbook examples of how the thirst for power can overcome the principles of sensible leadership practices. But is power, in itself, bad?

Such a waste of time, he chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference. – Frank Underwood

We are taught at a young age that the good guys are motivated to do the right thing while the bad guys are power-hungry villains. While this may be helpful when instilling life lessons in children, the realities of power are that it’s a fundamental part of group dynamics. Power is tied to bringing about necessary change, setting a vision, and directing actions in an effort to mutually benefit the group, the leader, and society as a whole.

Frank uses his power to destroy enemies, further his personal agenda, and, ultimately, acquire more power. You have a choice as to whether you want to follow his path or use your power for more altruistic purposes. And it is a choice. After all, regardless of how you apply it, power is simply the ability to influence others.

According to John French and Bertram Raven’s classic social power theory, we have six bases of power with which to influence those around us. They include:

Positional Power – formal authority based upon relative position and delegated duties. This is the most recognizable and easily definable type of power.

Referent Power – the ability to attract others and build loyalty through charisma and interpersonal skills.

Expert Power – derived from the expertise of the person and the organization’s need for this expertise.

Information Power – stems from being well-informed and up-to-date on the latest research, news, gossip, etc.

Reward Power – the ability to give a reward (time off, gifts, promotions, increased pay or responsibilities, etc.). It can be effective if used sparingly.

Coercive Power – the use of theats, punishments, or withholding rewards. This is the least effective form of power; it works in the short-term but builds no longstanding loyalty or committtment.

The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties. – Frank Underwood

Each of these bases of power can be used to help the greater good without sacrificing or compromising your moral code. They work interchangabily and can be effective when used at the appropriate time. It is our responsibility to identify the bases we are most reliant upon and ensure that 1) we are fluctuating between all six bases, 2) the base we use is most applicable/pertinent for that particular situation, and 3) we are developing our skills to practice using the bases we find to be the least comfortable.

The source of power is the relationship between you and those who follow you. It does not require a fancy job title or a heavy hand. Power, true power, is the product of establishing credibility, garnering organizational commitment, and setting a path where others trust you to take the lead. This plus a heeping dash of ethics will help you avoid becoming a Frank Underwood. Sure, his abuse of power may have gotten him into the White House, but we’ll see how sturdy a house of cards really is.

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