“Billions” and the Glare of Lighthouse Management

“Billions” and the Glare of Lighthouse Management

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In the Showtime drama “Billions,” Damian Lewis plays Bobby Axelrod, a brilliant, ruthless hedge fund manager who rules his trading room through fear. He walks in the room and glares at each trader in turn. The trader who flinches gets yelled at, grilled, or even fired.

This is one aspect of the streaming envy-fest I find realistic.

We all know CEO’s who have this style. I call it lighthouse management.

Why? Because their employees are in the dark… in the dark…still in the dark- until suddenly they are very bright light.

Then the glare of CEO focus, mistrust and personal distaste, combined with recital of the employee’s faults and past sins continues until the manager tires of the game.

Then the light turns to glare at the next victim.

This is destructive, toxic behavior.

And it is widely, almost universally, tolerated.

One private equity manager owned a company that was famously ruled in this fashion. The PE guy told me he didn’t necessarily admire the behavior, but it was common and the fellow made money. So…end of story.

So if decency or shame won’t curb the behavior, perhaps more money will.

Because a CEO ruling a company by personality is not sustainable, even if the perception of him or her is benign. At some point, the CEO will burn out or move on, leaving the company with a scarred but un-managed second tier.

Instead, companies need processes to train, motivate evaluate and reward employees. Properly instituted, these policies will result in a vibrant workforce whose enthusiasm for the work helps build top line, bottom line and corporate value. It also quietly builds the trust, confidence and careers of the employees.

And the CEO’s will themselves be more comfortable, because they can reduce the personal vigilance and endless rumination that rules their lives, as well as the lives of their employees.

“Billions”, by the way, would endorse this enlightened approach. At first glance, the characters lead fabulous lives. On reflection, though, the show plays like “Lives of the Rich and Famous” populated by miserable people.

Let’s take the cue from Axelrod’s style.

And end the drama.

April 20, 2016

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One Comment

  • Kay Plantes says:

    I will admit to being hooked on this show …. as the “good guy” attorney general is really evil and the hedgefund manager has a caring side, we think. In any case, I agree with your read on management. Especially in time of growing uncertainty as we face today, a CEO needs as many people who have his or her back as possible. And the CEO must be open to challenges to his or her mindset and decisions. Lighthouse management is the opposite of what is needed.