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Strategic Thinking Think Like

Think Like Frank Underwood

Frank Underwood - Copyright © Netflix

(Originally Published: 07/05/2015, Updated: 15/05/2016)

Frank Underwood is a fascinating character and represents the confidence, power, decisiveness and strategic mind that a lot of us, including me, wish we could emulate. Frank Underwood is a perfect example of the modern Machiavellian. For those unfamiliar with the term, it Machiavellian became popular in 1512, after Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, wrote a political treatise called The Prince (Il Principe).

The Prince details a somewhat cut-throat approach to gaining and maintaining power and a Machiavellian values political expediency over morals. They are more than willing to use deceit and fear maintain their authority and carry out their policies. It takes only a few moments observing Frank to see that his behaviour follows Machiavelli’s philosophy. Frank is willing to use any method to achieve his goals, this usually comes down to political manoeuvring bribery, blackmail, intimidation and even murder. Frank is not a nice guy, but he gets things done.

Whether you want to emulate Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian approach, or just achieve the results he does, then you need an understanding of political strategy and of how power works.

For most of us, the brand of politics that most directly affects you is the type that you experience in your social circles and the politics that affect you at work. It’s unlikely that you’re involved in national politics, the so this article will focus on adapting the approach, principles and strategies of Frank Underwood to the rest of us regular folks.

Office politics is particularly unavoidable and affects everyone, whether you get involved or not. You can either be an affected bystander or you can play the game and maybe influence your situation for the better. Most people like to “stay out” of office politics, either for moral or practical reasons, however, this doesn’t prevent you from being included in the games and if you don’t join in, you’ll have no influence over the outcomes.

If you wish to stay out of office politics, you have two choices:

  • Stay out of the “pettiness” but accept that you have little control over your environment and accept the consequences.
  • Understand how politics works and use that knowledge to minimise the negative effects from other’s involvement.

The first step to becoming active in politics is to fully understand your environment and the people in it.

Networks and Hierarchy

Every organisation has a hierarchy and every organisation has a person whose influence and power is much greater than their place on the totem pole. People with great influence also tend to attract followers and form cliques.

If you’re trying to get ahead at work, it’s a good idea to make a map of your office – what are the cliques and who really wields the influence. Just because the employee that’s been there 15 years has the same salary and title as you, don’t think that means they might not be the most important person in the office. There are official and unofficial authorities in the same way that there are official and unofficial job responsibilities.

It’s key to find out who these gatekeepers and influencers are. These are the people who you need to study. Find out who these influencers listen to and who they tend to favour. Next comes the difficult part, no matter how much you hate the action or dislike the person, you have to find a way to get in their good books. Study their behaviour and you’ll soon see the patterns that highlight what is important to that person. Tip: It’s usually feeling important and respected.

You probably have it a little easier than Frank, your office likely holds around 20-50 people. Frank has to deal with hundreds of congressmen and unfortunately, understanding the person is only part of the equation. Given that he must follow the rules of congress (and law), Frank needs a deep understanding of the policies and procedures that govern it. It’s also incredibly important to pay attention to the smallest details such as rules and policies – knowledge or lack of knowledge  can tie you up or it can free you.

Building Your Own Network

It’s clear that while having simple roots, that Frank is well-educated and has a deep knowledge of political and military history and strategy. It’s important to note however that while Frank is intelligent, formidable and a great strategist, he isn’t always the one to put in the legwork.

Cue 2 very important figures; Doug Stamper, Frank’s Director of Strategy and Claire Underwood, his wife and confidante –  at least in season 1 of the show.

Doug is a font of knowledge and seems to know something about everyone in congress and if he doesn’t already know it, you can be sure he’ll find out. Doug isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and he does some pretty sketchy things to support Frank’s bid for power. Why does he do this? Loyalty.


It’s clear that aside from his wife Claire, Doug’s is the only opinion Frank will consider. Which teaches us our first lesson. You can’t do it alone. Do not think that getting support is a weakness. While we glorify lone wolves who achieve great things alone, it’s rarely the case. Steve Jobs wasn’t a genius that built Apple on his own, neither is Bill Gates solely responsible for Microsoft’s huge success. They both had a lot of help from incredibly loyal partners, who worked out of the limelight.

If you can earn the loyalty of your team or colleagues, half the battle has already been won.

Loyalty should be encouraged and cultivated and stems from showing people respect, being consistent in your behaviour, showing trust and ALWAYS having the person’s back. Humans are wired to reciprocate and if you’ve always got someone’s back, even someone you really don’t like, it’s difficult for someone not to return that behaviour, even if it is begrudging.

This leads nicely onto how Frank builds loyalty. Key to Frank’s results is his ability to predict how people will behave and react to particular statements, actions or situations. His knowledge of this enables him to plan a chain of events which culminates in him achieving the results he wants. This doesn’t just come from thin air however. Frank and his team, mostly Doug, do their research and spend hours combing through a person’s history to get an idea of their character, analysing past behaviours and decisions to find patterns that can be used to predict future behaviours.

This works to his advantage with his staff and his adversaries, as a Machiavellian Frank often uses lies, bribery, blackmail and threats to get someone on his side. He knows exactly what buttons to press and when to press them. If used properly, you can anticipate your team’s needs and desires and support them in their endeavours. If not used properly…well, let’s leave that to Frank.

Loyalty, however, doesn’t just work for you, it can work against you and herein lies the heart of politics; influence and alliance.

With that in mind, it’s the time to learn of strategy.

Planning and Strategy

With Frank’s understanding of a person, awareness of political alliances and deep knowledge of policies and procedures, Frank is able to form plans and strategies. There are 2 elements to Frank’s strategies; prior planning and improvisation. In the very first episode, Frank explains:

We’ll have a lot of nights like this, making plans, very little sleep.

Each night Frank is diligently researching and mapping out his options and how each path might play out. He puts a lot of time and effort into trying to anticipate every way his strategy could fail and has backups in each situation. We only see the results on screen, not the days spent researching his opponents and mapping out hundreds of different options. His wife Claire also has a good grasp on strategy and is great at asking the questions which stimulate Frank’s thinking. What we see on screen, makes it seem as though Frank is all-knowing, but, in reality, he spends hour researching, consulting and pulling together an intricate web of actions designed to provoke a reaction and lead a person or group of people right where Frank wants them to go.

It sounds easy, but in his position, with access to the same information, would we be able to form the same successful strategies as Frank? Probably not, but there a wide array of resources that can build your ability to think strategically. Why plan to be one step ahead when you can be five?

The greatest modern book on political manoeuvring and Machiavellian strategy is The 48 Laws Of Power by Robert Greene. This best-seller  delves into strategy with a number of brilliant famous and lesser-known historical examples. With the success of his first book, Greene penned another manual focusing purely on military strategy, The 33 Strategies Of War which is definitely a must-read.

Image and Reputation

While it may seem materialistic and only surface-deep, appearance and demeanour plays a huge role in how people view us and behave towards us. The tie we wear and the way we stand can be the difference between respect and ridicule.

Frank has honed his body language, tone of voice and speech patterns over the years and created a persona of strength, leadership and respect. He pays attention to his physical appearance to always appear polished and in control He knows that he needs to behave in a way that projects strength and confidence, especially when dealing with people who, like him, are constantly on the lookout for weakness and opportunities.

All of the above contribute to Frank Underwood’s power. He exudes power and even those that don’t know him can sense it. (I’ve written about the sources of power in more detail if you’re interested.) Frank Underwood is a masterful politician, with a great understanding of people, policy and strategy who is willing to do anything to get what he wants. Now you know Frank’s methods, what’s stopping you from becoming the next President (or Marketing Manager)?

Recommended Reading:

  • The Ellipsis Manual: Analysis and Engineering of Human Behaviour – Written by Chase Hughes (profiling, interrogation and psychological intelligence trainer) this book is an amazing resource and his Behavioural Table of Elements is genius.
  • Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language – Desmond Morriss is a highly-respected zoologist and his work on body language helped build the foundations for the entire discipline.
  • The Definitive Book of Body Language: How to Read Others’ Attitudes by Their Gestures – Allan Pease has written a series of best-selling books on both body language and human interaction.
  • Good Strategy/Bad Strategy – While geared toward business situations, this is the greatest (non-textbook) book on strategy I’ve ever read – it looks at what strategy is and how to form them using a myriad of relevant examples.
  • Predatory Thinking – This book by adman Dave Trott teaches strategy through anecdotes and examples allowing you to see real world applications of strategy.
  • The 48 Laws Of Power –  A wonderful combination of political and military strategy, this best-seller by Robert Greene delves into strategy with a number of brilliant famous and lesser-known historical examples.
  • The 33 Strategies Of War – With the success of his first book, Greene penned another manual focusing purely on military strategy. He studied and observed as many facets of the discipline as he could find and grouped them together into 33 strategies.
  • Strategy: A History – At 767  pages, This book is the bible of strategy and gives a brilliant overview of the most prominent strategic theories in history, from David’s use of deception against Goliath – to the modern use of game theory in economics.
  • The Right Way to Play Chess – This 240-page book is one of the best-selling chess strategy books and if you can apply it to real-world, is great for teaching you to think 5, 6 and 7 steps ahead.
  • It might also be an idea to do some reading up on office politics as the subject tends to explore how to deal with different types of people to get the results you want.

If you’ve got any insights or opinions on how to use the skills used by Frank Underwood to further your career or success, please share them below – I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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