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Billions, Part 2

Have you seen the show yet? If not, that is perfectly acceptable. Read on…

In Part 1, I set-up a conversation to further develop two important leadership facets of emotional intelligence. First, was a strong degree of self-awareness for individual focus on practice and mastery. Second, was a deep sense of empathy expressed through the willingness to make an organizational investment in developing emotional intelligence both as a team and as individuals.

In Billions, the principal characters openly acknowledge their flaws and you even see them practice a few techniques to build self-awareness – from coaching to meditation. For all their known and yet to be known flaws, this is most certainly a redeeming quality and vital to setting up these principals as tragic heroes. Their focus on practice and mastery is noble. They recognize that you don’t start where you end if you also embrace the importance of personal growth and development.

We’ve heard these before: “awareness is the first step towards solving a problem” and “practice makes perfect.” Hard to argue the first point but I recently read an article arguing that practice does not, in fact, make perfect. So, for the sake of discussion, let’s set-aside any debate about the total validity of this axiom and stipulate its underlying value. While criticized, I even think Malcolm Gladwell even got this point when he illustrated a model for mastery known as the 10,000 hour. If you are unfamiliar, it basically states that if you perform 10,000 hours of any activity, you will master that activity. However, I don’t want to lose the underlying point – we are not born masters of anything, even of ourselves. It takes an investment of time and energy to get good at anything, including developing and controlling our emotions and engaging in effective interpersonal relationships, especially as an executive leader.

There are two scenes where I believe this is presented very clearly, both tied to the character played by Maggie Siff. Siff plays the wife to the US Attorney while also working as the in-house performance coach and psychiatrist at Axe Capital. The first scene is a spousal argument between Siff and Giamatti. Following a tense day for the US Attorney, he arrives home to address a sensitive matter with his wife. The exchange rapidly escalates to the use of harsh, un-loving words. This is does not create an environment for success and quickly becomes unproductive. What happens next is powerful. This unproductive course is identified and there is an affirmative declaration for it to end. The shift to more productive, and empathetic (to be read as caring and loving) language immediately turns the situation around and later proves far more effective. A deep sense of self-awareness and empathy coupled with the idea that at any moment we can choose a different course is an empowering combination that can serve as a valuable resource in any relationship to anyone who can master it.

The second is a scene between Siff and Lewis in the office of Lewis’ character, Bobby Axelrod. They discuss the counseling work that they have done together and the progress made over time. Put in context, this particular discussion specifically addresses a decision “Axe” needs to make that is presenting significant internal conflict. He knows what he wants to do and he knows what the emotionally intelligent approach would be. It is his own development that has led him to even this level of awareness, despite what he ends up doing in the end. This comes down to a self-awareness about motivation and choice. He understands what is motivating him and he knows that he has a choice in the matter. We all have choices, even in moments where it does not feel like we do or when the choice, even the right choice, is not evident. It takes time to get good at this, and the fact that the character recognized his own shortcomings and worked to fill an emotional awareness gap is the right takeaway and worthy of emulation.

The second facet of emotional intelligence that I am calling to your attention is the deep sense of empathy expressed through the willingness to make an organizational investment in developing emotional IQ both as a team and as individuals. The fact that the hedge fund has an in-house coach and psychiatrist is a strong signal to the organization about the value of coaching. It also sends a strong message about standards and expectations around behavior and personal responsibility. Now I am not saying you need to have this type of a person in-house; this is very expensive. What I am saying is that you need to have a solution that introduces coaching as a value in your corporate culture and among your leadership team.

There is one scene where the value of this is particularly evident in the show. One of Axe Capital’s investment managers, Nick Danzig (played by Nathan Darrow – also of House of Cards), schedules some time with Siff’s character because he has self-assessed that he is underperforming personal and organizational expectations. That alone signals the presence of either explicit (preferred) or implied (always present, high or low) standards. He aims to improve because he feels his continued employment, and most certainly his reputation, may be at risk. The coaching session comes down to two things: the power of ones frame of mind and trust in self. It is not complicated but this can be very difficult to accomplish alone. If we can put ourselves and our teams in the right frame of mind and feeling empowered, then imagine the problems that can be solved at the lowest levels and the innovation that could be unlocked (among other positive benefits). Without the organizational investment in coaching and the setting of high organizational standards centered on personal accountability, you are leaving too much to chance. As leaders, why leave this to chance when it is both our responsibility and within our control?

As leaders, our job is to inspire, focus and mobilize those whom we lead formally or lead informally. It is also our job to ensure that every day we arrive ready to perform at the best of our ability in full acknowledgment of our flaws and shortcomings as human beings. To take control of that with which we can, we must invest and practice both in ourselves and in our teams. Every decision presents a choice and even when we make a ‘bad’ choice, we always – in an instant – can make the decision to do better and immediately alter course. This awareness, the ability to act and the ability to forgive is central to emotional intelligence and should be a central goal as leaders (as well as spouses, partners, parents, coaches and all of the other roles we find ourselves in).

If you have not seen the first episode of Billions yet, maybe now you might watch it. It will be interesting if your viewing sparks similar or different thoughts. I’d like to hear from you. I am looking forward to my wife reading this and seeing the curious look on her face when she realizes that this is what I was thinking about as we watched the show and why I enjoyed the pilot of Billions as much as I did.

It’s a long season. Can’t wait to see where it goes.


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