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What Suits teaches us about better leadership models

Characters Mike Ross and Harvey Specter in the television series Suits.

This is the first in a series of five articles on co-leadership by Dr Ralph Bathurst, who is the academic coordinator for Massey’s Master of Advanced Leadership programme. Each week he will explore aspects of co-leadership using popular tv series Suits and its main characters, Harvey Specter and Mike Ross, as exemplars.

I watched the first episode of the popular TV series Suits as a temporary and mindless distraction. Perhaps I needed a lot of distraction at the time, because one episode turned into watching the entire first series, and then came the second…

I was part-way through the fifth series when it dawned on me what the programme was about, and I started to take closer notice of the storylines and characters. Now in its seventh season, with over 100 episodes, Suits is fascinating; and I want to share some of the ideas that have provoked my thinking about leadership.

A story of co-leadership

Suits is based on a simple idea. It’s a story of co-leadership; of two men from completely different backgrounds working together to solve complex legal cases. Harvey Specter is a hard-nosed lawyer – the best closer in the city – who will take the most efficient and effective path to winning. He is driven to win, and to win big. As with all the lawyers in his firm Pearson Hardman, he is Harvard-educated and knows the boundaries between legal and illegal, and (of course) he always wins legally.

Mike Ross never made it through law school and earns his living from delivering parcels by bicycle to corporate offices across the city. As a child, his parents were killed in a car crash, leaving his grandmother to raise him. When we first meet Mike, his grandmother is in a private rest home and in declining health. His meagre income puts her ongoing care at risk and she may need to be placed in a public institution, which Mike insists he will not let happen. To find immediate cash he agrees to courier a package of marijuana to a downtown hotel room.

I will leave it to you to take a look at the first episode to learn how Harvey and Mike meet. Suffice to say, that from that encounter, Harvey hires Mike as his associate and so begins their partnership. The qualities that drive their working relationship inform us about how co-leadership works. But to find this out, we need to go back to the foundations of leadership as it is currently being practiced.

Dr Ralph Bathurst.

When corporations replaced religion

Perhaps the most important and enduring leadership text was written in 1842 by Thomas Carlyle. It was Carlyle who introduced the great-man-as-leader into our consciousness, advocating the leader as a hero figure who would be admired (Carlyle uses the word “worshipped”) by followers and who would bring transformation. Carlyle was trying to find ways to achieve social cohesion through secular, non-religious means. He believed that society still needed heroes, men with strength of character who could guide organisations and nations.

Since Carlyle’s time, religious institutions in the West have gradually declined in importance, and the corporation has filled the vacuum. Business organisations provide a similar sense of identity and belonging that the church used to offer, adopting the familiar forms that characterised faith-based groups. As with religious affiliations, enterprises offer a sense of family to staff, replacing loyalty to a divine being with another higher power, the firm. It is not surprising, then, that business is resistant to alternative leadership practices that supersede those old religious structures.

Why strong leaders can lead to weak organistions

Indeed, most of today’s leadership theories are versions of Carlyle’s ideas, defaulting to a strong, determined and visionary person at the top of a hierarchy. Despite fashionable flavours like ‘transformational’, ‘authentic’ and even ‘servant’ leadership, these theories are still rooted in Victorian ideas and attempt to solve problems from that perspective.

However, a strong leader atop a hierarchy is actually weak because, regardless of their bluster, their vision is limited and constrained, and people beneath them are hamstrung. One way through this dysfunction is by co-leadership, where two people together as equals share responsibility for the firm. Before you argue back and say, “That’s impossible; it simply won’t work!” let’s take a closer examination of Harvey and Mike from Suits and see if there might be useful clues towards effective co-leading. 

In this series of articles, I will explore co-leadership from a variety of perspectives, using Suits, and Harvey Specter and Mike Ross as exemplars. Sure, they are fictional characters but that serves our analytic purposes; they help us detach from, and then to look back on, our real-life worlds. In taking this approach, we will explore the zeitgeist of our times and use insights from the fictional world of Pearson Hardman to examine the issues we struggle with in our age, beyond the Victorian traditions that have stifled leadership thinking.

Learn about the Master of Advanced Leadership Practice

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