“Designated Survivor”: Leadership with Power and Vulnerability

 In Pei Blog

This scene from one of my favorite current television shows, models something extremely rare in leadership. 

Leadership is a theme in many movies and television shows, but one current show has caught my attention more than others – ABC’s Designated Survivor, about a man who assumes the Presidency of the United States after a horrific attack that wipes out nearly everyone in the government.  The story follows Tom Kirkman’s (played by Kiefer Sutherland) adjustment to a job he wasn’t prepared to take, in a time of crisis and uncertainty in the nation’s leadership.

My favorite scene comes in episode 8 (“The Results”), when President Kirkman sits down with his son Leo, to discuss the accusation that he isn’t Leo’s biological father.  Kirkman is holding the results of a DNA test, and his son asks him if he’s looked at the test.

Kirkman replies:

“No.  I don’t need to.  I don’t need a lab or genetics to tell me what I already know –  what I’ve always known, from the day you were born, and every day since.  Whatever it says in here isn’t going to change anything… at least not for me.  Leo, you will always be my son, and I will always be your father.  The only reason why I never talked to you about this before – honestly – is because it didn’t matter to me.  But I never thought about how it might matter to you… and for that I was wrong.  And I’m sorry.  So this (Kirkman hands Leo the letter) is for you, to open or not… and whatever you choose to do, I will respect.  But Leo, I need you to know how much I love you.”

This scene reveals so many great principles of leadership.  Kirkman offers his unconditional love to his son, but what he does after that is exceptional.  He doesn’t assume that just because something isn’t important to him, that it isn’t important to someone else.  Kirkman understands that although this may not impact him, it does impact Leo very significantly.  And this is a sensitivity and understanding of power that we leaders (and parents) are often slow to get.  I so frequently underestimate the impact of my actions on the people I lead.

I appreciate how when Kirkman realizes his error, he takes responsibility and apologizes to his son.  Then he gives Leo the ultimate gift of power and respect… freedom.  President Kirkman, in the nation’s most powerful office, allows his son to do as he chooses.  This is the complete opposite of “lording authority” over others.

I’m also impressed by the way Designated Survivor depicts Kirkman’s vulnerability as a leader.  It’s refreshing to see him admit his doubts and shortcomings.  Before his talk with Leo, Kirkman tells his wife, “I’m afraid I’m going to lose him.”  It seems more common these days to see leaders – whether politicians or pastors – who are afraid of appearing weak.  But if we never see their weaknesses and struggles, we also don’t get to see the even greater strength that is required to work through those struggles.

We do get to see that strength in Kirkman.  He isn’t passive or weak at all in the show.  He’s willing to fire people, navigate difficult negotiations, and stand his ground when necessary.  He demonstrates a growing confidence and conviction in what he needs to do, and how.

I’m currently reading Andy Crouch’s book Strong and Weak, which suggests that we flourish as leaders when we demonstrate both authority and vulnerability.  It’s a deep, yet widely applicable truth that I see everywhere I look.  I’ve found the book helpful, and wholeheartedly recommend it!

Designated Survivor returns on March 8 on ABC.  It’s definitely not just “Jack Bauer as President,” but contains a ton of insights about leadership.  If you have a chance to check it out (or if you already watch it), let me know what you think about the show!

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