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Billions, Part 1

My wife and I are big fans of Showtime original programming. Throughout the fifth season of Homeland, Showtime promoted a new series, Billions, starring Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis (turns out the entire cast is great – kudos to casting). Both are wonderful actors and, as fans of Homeland, we were delighted to see Damian Lewis make an appearance in a new series. So, on a recent Friday night after putting our son to bed, we sat down and watched the series opener.

I was expecting it to be well acted with witty, sharp dialogue. The previews did a good job of setting that expectation. What I did not expect, and what was the most pleasant of surprises, was the amount of character development packed into the first episode. That’s one of the signs of a great production, character development, and the degree of emotional depth portrayed. It takes great writing and great acting to make it work. You combine that with a relevant storyline and you’ve got a hit as far as I am concerned. My wife turned to me and said, “You’re really enjoying this.” And, yes, I was. But possibly not for the reasons you might think (thus the reason for this blog post since I am definitely not a professional entertainment critic).

This post is really about emotional intelligence, or emotional IQ. In 1998, Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote the following in “What Makes a Leader” to establish the importance of emotional intelligence to business leadership: "The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader."

The characters in the series are flawed human beings (as are we all) that have risen to the top of their chosen professions; each experiencing standout, noteworthy successes. They have surrounded themselves with top talent in organizations that have a clear vision, mission, and purpose. The values of these organizations are well established and the culture is not only reinforced by the organizational leaders, you hear it voiced and emulated at all levels. Employees take personal responsibility for developing plans and achieving goals. You could say that Axe Capital and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York are, to an extent, high performing organizations. Although somewhat idealized, that was interesting to see.

What was most fascinating was the emotional intelligence demonstrated by the show’s principal characters. You saw heated conflict rife with awareness, arguments reigned in to a productive conclusion, and demonstration of the desire for self-control and the need for personal development. Quite often, characters in these types of shows are presented to an audience in their developed form with most of the conflict emanating from interpersonal struggle. While that is present here, the intra-personal conflict is profound and most interesting.

These characters highlight two important leadership facets of emotional intelligence that I want to call to your attention. First, a strong degree of self-awareness for individual focus on practice and mastery. Second, a sense of empathy expressed through the willingness to make an organizational investment in developing emotional intelligence both as a team and as individuals.

I am ending Part 1 here. Perhaps I’ve intrigued you enough to watch Episode 1. Part 2 will make much more sense if you have seen the show.


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