If you think of TV as a way of unplugging your brain at the end of a long workday, it’s time to plug that brain back in. With so many great shows on television, there are plenty of viewing options that will keep you entertained and offer you valuable management insight.
Here are my picks for shows that make for great viewing—and great business learning.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Built around
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is an ensemble sitcom that follows a detective squad in a Brooklyn police precinct. The show stealer turns out to be a deadpan
playing the squad’s gay, black captain as an admirable but humorless father figure. For those of us raised on a generation of management books exhorting leaders to show human warmth, Mr. Braugher’s Capt. Holt provides a surprisingly appealing alternative.
Capt. Holt reminds us that not only is there no single management style that works for all managers, but there’s no single style that works for all employees. And Capt. Holt is a master at calibrating his management style to each member of the team. With an eager sycophant, he’s explicitly directive: “It should take 70 seconds for you to fully gauge someone’s character. Here’s what to look for: grammar, posture, scent, attire, level of perspiration, type of shirt collar.” With the overgrown child, he’s appropriately stern: “Get your act together.”
And when he makes the mistake of disrespecting his colorful and talented assistant, he knows how to correct himself: “You’re tenacious, you’re strong. You’re a great leader.” Watch “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” for laughs—but keep a close eye on Capt. Holt’s approach to hypercustomized management.
The Americans: Set in the 1980s, this show follows the personal and professional lives of a pair of KGB operatives, Philip and Elizabeth, who are undercover as suburban American parents. Much of their work would look familiar to today’s smartest hackers: Philip and Elizabeth are masters of the human manipulation that hackers refer to as “social engineering.” Watch them at work, and you’ll learn to defend your company against the many varieties of human error that can expose companies to massive security risks.
Whether they’re befriending a family to set up a blackmail scheme, seducing a midlevel manager to get access to classified documents, or using a mistress to get a man alone in a hotel room, these two almost always choose a human being as the weak link in a security system. If you did nothing but catalog the schemes in “The Americans,” you’d start your next security audit way ahead.
Project Runway: This long-running reality show is a laboratory for the creative process, since each season challenges a group of fashion designers to create a new outfit every single week. One week they might be asked to create a ready-to-wear ensemble for a working woman, while the next week they have to assemble an outfit out of materials they collect at a hardware store. Each week’s aesthetic mandate and materials list offers a reminder of the value of constraints in fostering creativity: The best designs often emerge from the challenges that offer the least flexibility. The other key ingredient? Skilled mentorship.
That mentorship comes from
who provides feedback on each designer’s work in progress—and can teach any executive how to give better feedback.
Step 1: Before providing feedback on someone’s work, check in on their goals. Mr. Gunn always begins by asking what the designer is trying to achieve, so that his feedback is keyed to supporting their vision, rather than his own.
Step 2: Share your most important resource—your professional history and experience. Mr. Gunn’s feedback often consists of pointing out when someone is echoing the work of a designer they may not know about, or if they’re trying to execute a design that won’t be feasible with their chosen fabric.
Step 3: If you’ve got negative feedback, articulate the problem directly, and then invite—but don’t impose—a solution. When Mr. Gunn sees that someone’s in trouble, he tells them exactly what the issue is, and then points them in a direction to find their own solution. If you want to deliver feedback that is candid and effective—without being unkind—this show is a master class.
The Good Fight: A spinoff of the long-running “The Good Wife,” this show tackles the challenge of becoming a team player when you’re used to running the show. Its central character is Diane Lockhart, who retires from her job as managing partner of a big corporate law firm only to get embroiled in a personal and financial crisis that leaves her desperate for work—and virtually unemployable. She lands a new job at an African-American law firm where she has to take orders, instead of giving them, while also navigating the novel experience of being a white person in a black office.
Diane offers a reassuring example to any executive who experiences gnawing anxiety about the possibility of someday being knocked off their perch—and a great reminder of why your very best hires may be people who are former bosses themselves. Because Diane has been a boss, she accepts that she’ll sometimes be left out of senior meetings. Because she’s been responsible for an entire firm, she knows to offer her resignation when her actions have exposed the business to some risk (even if she’s relieved when that offer isn’t accepted). And because she’s been a boss, she knows that the only way she can expect a better financial deal from her employer is if she brings more money to the table (in the form of a lucrative client).
Watch a few episodes of “The Good Fight,” and you’ll be clamoring to hire more deposed managers onto your own team.
Orange Is the New Black: While it focuses primarily on the lives of women in a minimum-security prison, “Orange Is the New Black” also delves into the lives of prison staff—and that’s where it offers the most poignant lessons for managers. The show portrays prison management as a nonstop series of dismal, conscience-searing trade-offs, and many managers will relate to the various situations in which a manager must choose between equally terrible options.
While the show holds out little hope for truly reforming a ruthless organization, it’s still able to offer a path for doing good when you’re working in a business that offers little room for virtue. That path is illuminated by the prison warden, whose efforts at prison improvement are repeatedly rejected or perverted by his higher-ups. Instead, he finds his opportunities to make change in the moments that don’t require anyone else’s buy-in: He uses blackmail to protect the prison from closure, leaks incriminating photos to the press as a way of advocating for an ill-treated prisoner, and asserts his management prerogative when he’s on live TV and can’t be overridden.
Those particular strategies may be a tad dramatic for a real-life office, but the underlying lesson rings true: If you can’t sell your organization on wholesale change, look for the tiny windows where you can make an impact by going rogue.
The Young Pope:
plays an American who surprises the Catholic establishment by winning the papacy as a relative outsider. His position will look all too familiar to executives who have been hired into leadership roles from outside the organization, and indeed, watching Pope Pius navigate the Vatican proves highly instructive for anyone who’s trying to make major changes while new to their company’s management.
The Pope Pius recipe for reorienting an organization: Publicly signal that you’re moving in a new direction, while privately tapping into long-established sources of knowledge and expertise. Pius shows he’s his own man by bringing in a trusted adviser from outside the Vatican, while quietly seeking counsel and information from those who have been in Rome for many years. He cultivates relationships with longtime Vatican insiders—but picks those he trusts from far down the food chain, where they have experience and knowledge rather than a vested interest in the old regime. He makes use of the talent that is available within the existing team, but only to the extent that old-timers will explicitly commit to his new agenda.
While it may be tricky to follow Pius’s map if your authority is based on something more tenuous than papal infallibility, anyone can borrow his approach of marrying the rhetoric of a fresh start with behind-the-scenes outreach to the establishment.
Borgen: This Danish series covers both the political and personal life of a minor politician who becomes the surprise prime minister in a coalition government. The show divides its attention between the political machinations that allow the prime minister to stay in power, and the personal juggling involved in being both a prime minister and the married mother of two children.
That juggling act offers a clear lesson to any executive who struggles to balance work and home: If you’re going to make the personal sacrifices that leadership demands, you have to really believe in your work. Throughout the series, we see Borgen’s prime minister make both personal and policy decisions that directly affect her family life, like introducing transparency rules that put her husband out of a job. Even when these decisions exact a high personal price, however, we see little that looks like regret. Instead, the prime minister glows with satisfaction at accomplishments like enacting gender-parity requirements for corporate boards. Watch “Borgen” for its sharp depiction of the personal cost of leadership—and to set a high bar for what makes those sacrifices feel worthwhile.
Ms. Samuel, a frequent Journal Reports contributor, is a writer in Vancouver, British Columbia. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.