One of my current television addictions is the drama series The Americans. Set in the 1980s, it centres on Elizabeth and Phillip, two KGB officers during the cold war posing as an American married couple in the suburbs of Washington DC. The show is as much about relationships as espionage, with similar issues facing both the Russian and American characters as they struggle to remain detached and in control.
In the latest episode to be aired in the UK (Covert War, Series 1, Episode 11), the couple’s KGB supervisor (flippantly referred to as Granny) complains that ‘sometimes the smartest officers do the stupidest things’. I couldn’t help but think there are managers everywhere who have similar frustrations about the people who report to them.
Every organisation needs its smart people. They bring specialist knowledge and skills, they generate creative solutions and fundamentally are the source of all innovation. They can also be unpredictable and are notoriously difficult to lead. They need a constant supply of new challenges, they don’t tend to follow rules and they resist attempts to be managed.
The Americans shows a world where the agents on both sides need to be extremely bright in order to outwit the opposition and stay alive, but where ‘defying orders is never a good idea’. No wonder Granny is having problems controlling her agents.
At the heart of this episode is a fascinating contrast in leadership styles. Granny maintains a detached, corporate mask at all times; when challenged about an order from Moscow, she replies ‘I do not agree or disagree – I follow orders.’ Although very task-focused, she appears to have a hidden agenda, manipulating her agents, playing one off against another and finding extreme ways to test their loyalty. It is not surprising therefore that they have difficulty believing her when she insists ‘I am on your side… my only ambition is to make sure you’re the best officers you can possibly be; if I have to be tough to accomplish this, I will be.’
In a series of flashbacks, we also see Elizabeth talking to her mentor, Viktor Zhukov. In contrast to Granny, General Zhukov is much more philosophical, spending time getting to know his recruit, using stories to build the relationship and to illustrate important lessons. In one of these lessons, Zhukov refers to the connection he has with his dog, saying ‘if you take care of something, one day you will discover that you love this creature… I take care of him every day, and he in his way is taking care of me.’ The care he put into nurturing the relationship with Elizabeth left her in no doubt that ‘Zhukov understood me, loved me’.
Elizabeth sums up the difference between these styles by telling Granny that ‘Viktor was easy to love, but you’re not.’ When Viktor is killed therefore, Elizabeth has no hesitation in disregarding orders and deciding to hunt down and kill the person responsible. Granny’s form of tough leadership may work with some individuals, but if she wants Elizabeth’s unconditional loyalty she is unlikely to get it. Her patronising ‘you’re still new at this my dear, so much to learn’ approach seems more designed to put Elizabeth in her place than actually motivate her. Elizabeth’s warns ‘this isn’t going to go well for you, old lady’, and given that she has previously repeatedly punched Granny in the face, it’s probably a warning worth heeding. The smart thing for Granny to do would be to reconsider her leadership style in this situation; but of course sometimes the smartest people do the stupidest things.