Will McAvoy vs. Bobby Axelrod

Are We Sacrificing Kindness in Favor of Success?

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It’s not personal, it’s business.  This magic phrase brings absolution of guilt to those who brazenly acknowledge their atrocious behavior, because at least … they’d never do “that” to a friend.

It’s not what you know, but rather who you know.  Our collective conscious acknowledges that relationships are still at the forefront of business.  There’s an imperative to create and nurture personal bonds to receive the best opportunities.

Yet in today’s world of business we often encounter people who are ruthless and cunning in their attempts to gain leverage (and they always seem to be materially successful).

If our best business relationships are deeply personal, why are so many people overlooking the importance of empathy, sincerity and trust?

Aaron Sorkin is often criticized for his overly idealistic view of the world … and his walking monologues. (I confess I’m biased towards both.)

When his HBO show The Newsroom debuted in 2012 the series began with an affable anchor’s answer to the question “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” And in a moment of vulnerability, the character Will McAvoy gives an honest answer – “It’s not.” (Followed by a classic Sorkin monologue – you know you wanna watch.)

The series goes on to chronicle the daily work of a fictional cable news network that just like in The West Wing shows the American public what our world “could be like” … if everyone’s actions were based on a code of moral ethics with mankind’s best interests at heart. (Insert laughter here.)

He was crazy.  He identified with Don Quixote – an old man with dementia who thought he could save the world from an epidemic of incivility simply by acting like a knight.  His religion was decency.  He spent a lifetime fighting its enemies

The Newsroom

Unfortunately, we do not live in a land created by Sorkin. (*sobs*)

Instead, many of the people we interact with on a daily basis suffer from a specific form of mental illness.  Renowned psychologists Dr. Jean Twenge and Dr. Keith Campbell are two of the world’s leading experts on narcissism and their studies indicate that we’re currently living in an epidemic that began in the 1970s.  Narcissism appears to be the modern adaptation required for survival.

Natural selection has literally become stacked against kindness.

We’ve become a Kardashian culture where success is funneled to those who emulate Bobby Axelrod. (If you aren’t watching the Showtime series Billions … borrow someone’s password and thank me later).  On the flip side, those who are naturally kind often find themselves playing a rigged game with a losing hand.

Coming face-to-face with the fast-paced world of business often means accepting the harsh reality that while everything exists on a spectrum, the pendulum is swinging closer to Axe Capital than The Newsroom.

“Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

Man of La Mancha

While I want to defame this reality, there’s one thing even I cannot deny – Bobby Axelrod is the king of cool.  Our inner ego relates to him and part of us wants to be him.  There’s a reason this show has mass appeal and it goes beyond watching Wendy Rhoades dominate. 

On the show, when Taylor Mason (the first gender non-binding character on television) had their first romance with Oscar Langstraat my heart sang.  However, several episodes later when the relationship was sacrificed in the name of success I was left questioning not only modern day romance, but also our cultural values and corporate expectations.

While the scenes depicted on the show are an overly dramatized fiction depicting the business world, the tropes are all too familiar.  If modern man displays strength by tapping into the power embodied by Axelrod, will the McAvoy’s ever be able to rule?

“The greater fool is actually an economic term. It’s a patsy. For the rest of us to profit, we need a greater fool— someone who will buy long and sell short. Most people spend their life trying not to be the greater fool; we toss him the hot potato, we dive for his seat when the music stops. The Greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to believe he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was built by greater fools.”

The Newsroom

Life is always a great balancing act and Mafee seems to be the only character on Billions that brings the paradox into question.  If narcissism is the epidemic of our time, how do we build healthier business relationships for all to thrive? Examining the situation from every angle still reveals a classic double-bind situation.

“There’s a Zen koan where the teacher holds a stick. He says to his student, “If you tell me this stick is real, “I will beat you with it. “If you tell me it is not real, I will beat you with it. If you say nothing, I will beat you with it.” And so, the student reaches out, grabs the stick, and breaks it. If a situation is untenable, Mrs. Rhoades, you break that stick.”


At what point do we decide the current situation is no longer tenable?  Who among us will stand-up to the Axelrods?  How do we band together to break the stick?  

Some of us are already searching for (and enacting) ways to bring a little more compassion and ethics back into the world of business. 

Perhaps if we pull (really hard) collectively, we can swing the pendulum back in the other direction.

“One man scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable stars; and the world was better for this.”

Man of La Mancha
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