What “The Terror” Taught Me About Leadership: Franklin (Bush), Hickey (Trump), Little (Paul Ryan), and Crozier (Gore/Clinton)

By | May 22, 2018

For an in-depth review/recap of the finale, check out the article immediately below this one, but if you’re interested in learning how to apply the lessons of “The Terror” to your own life, this is the right place. Because while the show may seem entirely foreign to your everyday life, including your workplace–arctic setting, period setting, British Naval setting–there’s a surprising amount you can learn about leadership from this series. Despite there being only one major female character, I’m thrilled that so many women love “The Terror,” but I also think it’s important for men to watch because of our pitiful lack of role models on TV. Even though “Terror” could’ve been strictly macho territory–it is an arctic survival show amongst Navy men fighting a monstrous bear, after all–the best men on this voyage are sometimes sensitive, kind, intuitive, and masculine without (usually) sacrificing their quiet dignity. Jordan Peterson (the living equivalent of “The Handmaid’s Tale”‘s Commander Fred) could learn a lot…

Foolish Leadership, Represented by Sir John Franklin (George W. Bush)…The parallells between Bush and Franklin are easy to make: both are fool-hardy adventurers with blind optimism and an unwavering sense of religion (Franklin offers up prayers when things get tough, rather than sound leadership decisions that will save lives) that is ineffective at best. Like Bush, Franklin was born into a great family but people question if he’s really the man to lead a big expedition, widely liked by the men but not well-respected by most in the know.

Whenever Crozier tries to warn Franklin of the very real dangers they’re facing, he’s dismissed as a sour-puss. His prescient warnings of what will come viewed as either “melodrama” or sour grapes since Franklin denied Crozier his niece’s hand in marriage. In this way, Franklin is absolutely like Bush, dismissing Al Gore’s “sour grapes” climate change and Iraq War warnings. Like Bush, Franklin also has a gung-ho faith in the British Empire, even though they’d recently suffered big losses in wars with France and the United States (much like Bush couldn’t see Iraq wasn’t so different from Vietnam or Beirut, and the Russian Empire had just been beaten by Afghanistan in an insurgency war that broke the Soviet Union). He is ultimately killed by a creature he under-estimated and thought would be easy to vanquish, after condemning his men to die by dismissing Crozier’s every plan to save them.

Takeaway: Sir Captain John Franklin provides a cautionary tale of not letting personal feelings (his need to be accepted by high society, believing Francis Crozier had ulterior motives for his pessimism of their mission) get in the way of otherwise sound advice, clouding your judgment to how much danger you’re really in. At work, we might dismiss a warning from someone we don’t like because we’re paranoid of their real intentions, and it’s important to evaluate every piece of advice on its own merits, independent of who gave it to you. The same way Republican Governors literally refused necessary money from Obama–stimulus, medicaid expansion, unemployment extension–over personal animus and to deny their political foe “a win” that would’ve helped them too. Sir John’s refusal to not look “weak” or incompetent by abandoning one of his ships to save everyone is the definition of a pyrrhic victory, as it inevitably killed him and almost everyone else. Confidence is good, but blindly optimistic risk in the face of empirical evidence will probably not work.

Insane Leadership, Represented by “Cornelius Hickey” (Donald J. Trump)…[Note: Don’t freak out Trumpers, the book this series was based on was written years before Trump started running for President, so this character clearly wasn’t written as a slam on him, but the parallels are easy to make once you see them.] “Cornelius Hickey” is a con-man, Trump is a con-man. He is worried about being sexually blackmailed early on, Trump is freaked out over a pee tape. He uses xenophobic fears against indigenous people (in their own land) to get the men into betraying their own interests, Trump wants to build a wall between Mexico and a part of America that used to be Mexico. Once Hickey goes through with a mutiny, he starts a campaign against “corrupt elites” that don’t have the common man’s interests at heart, exaggerating Crozier’s (Hillary Clinton’s) scandals so they’ll follow him; Trump’s entire campaign was against “the Swamp” and “crooked Hillary.” Hickey has no idea what he’s doing, elevates himself to a position he’s not qualified for, is actually insane, literally uses people as fuel, and gets a lot of people killed before they wake up to what he’s really doing; Trump…well, you get the idea…

Takeaway: Most of the people hit hardest by Trump’s policies are the very people that voted for him. [Dave Chappelle–a wealthy comic and scourge of the rightwing–correctly surmised that Trump was fighting for his interests, not the people who voted for him.] While most of the men who choose not to follow Hickey are left untouched by his mutiny, his band of mutineers nearly all die because of him, and he’s seemingly okay with that as long as he can control Tuunbaq (here symbolizing ultimate power). All of this is to say you should always question “Does my leader have my best interests at heart? Do they have ulterior motives for doing the things they do? Do they just want to be in power? Do they know what they’re doing?” 

That last question is especially important when you’re following insurgency movements/mutinees from Bernie’s on the DNC to Trump’s on the RNC to Malcolm X’s on the Civil Rights movement (he’s the only CR leader killed by other black people, and largely views his time before the last year of his life as wasted) to Bin Laden’s on the more moderate freedom fighters in the Afghanistan War against Russia. Sometimes, the most damning leadership takes the form of the most cynical, saying you’d be a fool to follow the people who actually know what they’re doing.

Weak or Absent Leadership, Represented by Lt. Little (Paul Ryan)…But it still seems Hickey’s men fair just a microscopic bit better (by dying quickly and together) than Little’s small band. That’s because Little is a LITO (Leader in Title Only). His first major decision–to go back and rescue their real Captain, Crozier–is uniformly ignored and outvoted, so he just sort-of goes along with it anyway. [Not entirely dissimilar from Paul Ryan getting torn between California Republicans and the Freedom Caucus, just sort-of letting both bands do what they want so that nothing really gets done.] The men pretend to respect him, but basically do as they wish, eventually leading to a charnel house of horrors where they’ve clearly eaten each other, tortured each other (Little’s own face is studded with a sickening web of gold chains), and killed each other.

Even though Little is still technically alive when Crozier finds him, he appears to die from essentially giving up, exhausted by a leadership position he didn’t know what to do with, and only had by default. The way Paul Ryan is a very young Speaker of the House to not be seeking re-election, and only became Speaker because Republicans didn’t have anyone else that wouldn’t start an intra-party fight.

Takeaway: Great leaders are more than just a title. Some people have it, and some people don’t, and some of it really depends on the people you get stuck commanding, and how much they respect your authority. At the end of the day, Little knew their best bet for survival was rescuing Crozier, but he went along with the men’s selfish, foolish plan, and even left the sick men to die without saying a word. The way otherwise competent bosses can sometimes find themselves steam-rolled by pushier employees who may not know what they’re doing. A horrible boss is nearly unbearable, but an absentee boss creates a power vacuum where few things get done. Both are sure-fire recipes for failure. 

Great but Unpopular Leadership, Represented by Captain Francis Crozier (Al Gore or Hillary Clinton)…There are very, very few things Al Gore has been wrong about over the decades: He saw the need for the internet, and was instrumental in getting the government funds to start it (at a time when most politicians are luddites, as evidenced by the embarassing response to cyber-hacking). He’s been a champion of not only new tech, but needed democracy changes (he correctly predicted the immediate need to get rid of the electoral college that screwed him over, while others said it would take many decades before that happened again it, it happened only 16 years later). He wanted to save Bill Clinton’s stimulus money for a rainy day like funding baby-boomer-social-security, and correctly predicted Bush would squander it on tax cuts and unwinnable foreign wars (he was dead against Iraq, the biggest Democrat who was at the time). And, of course, he’s been the highest profile, strongest, and (one of the) earliest voices against Climate Crisis.

It’s very hard to see how we couldn’t have saved countless lives and money listening to him, but people just didn’t like him. They also didn’t like Hillary Clinton–no–they hated Hillary Clinton, and now we’re stuck in a mess with no end. Enter Captain Crozier…

Takeaway: Crozier’s accurate predictions to Sir John were completely dismissed. He was so frustrated with being stone-walled about the danger they were in, he was ready to commit a soft mutiny by leading a rescue party himself. [The way Al Gore has championed states like California and New York to make their own deals with the Paris Climate Accords, fed up with waiting for Trump to commit the turn-around on climate crisis that Bush never did.] But Crozier was so frustrated with the commander ahead of him, he perhaps wasn’t paying enough attention to the bumbling sociopath below him.

Still, despite not seeing the mutiny fully coming, he figured it out quickly and would’ve gotten the best of Hickey if not for the rampaging hand of fate that is Tuunbaq (the Russians). Literally, the only reason Hickey wasn’t hung for mutiny and cold-blooded murder is because Crozier couldn’t anticipate the unceremonious arrival of that damn bear, and let Hickey have last rights before more quickly executing him. It’s no surprise Crozier is the last man alive at the end of the journey. If only more people had listened to him, he wouldn’t have been alone.

Note on Lady Silence: I’m still just a little too sad to talk about her end, but her leadership style might be called “Against the Odds Leadership” (AOL). Sometimes, the odds just aren’t with you. She was in a male relative’s shadow for much of her life (Hillary), and wound up in a strange land with few friends and many more that are suspicious of her (Rodham), and she was still able to do pretty well until the unthinkable happened and people banished her for “letting them down,” losing something she had no control over (Clinton).

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