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Management Lessons From Four Bad TV Bosses — and One Great One

Thrive Editorial

For the blissfully boss-free, these toxic TV supervisors offer lessons in what not to do when managing a team — and a reminder of the beauty of solopreneurship.

Is it just us, or has 2022 been the year of the bad TV boss? Shows about horrible managers are all over the small screen these days, from real-life nightmare CEOs like Elizabeth Holmes to quasi-fictional baddies like Logan Roy. Maybe it’s Hollywood’s way of processing our collective ambivalence about upper management in the wake of the Great Resignation.

Logan Roy, Waystar Royco (Succession, HBO)

Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Photo courtesy WarnerMedia

It’s easy to romanticize taking over the family business, unless that business requires its employees to commit fraud, spread disinformation and cover up sexual assault. Loosely based on the real-life saga of Rupert Murdoch and his heirs, HBO’s Succession has created TV’s most infamous boss, played by Brian Cox. As the head of a global megacorporation with its fingers in every last capitalist pie, from cable news to theme parks and cruises, Logan Roy is a cutthroat CEO who eats his competitors, abusively plays his underlings against each other, and stomps around the world’s most rarefied power spaces like he owns the place. Sure, he’ll fly you to his Hungarian mansion on a private jet for the annual corporate retreat, but one wrong move and you might find yourself forced into a humiliating round of Boar on the Floor.
Don’t be that boss: Just about everything Logan Roy does is a management don’t, but if you want to avoid having your employees nervously testify about you to Congress, empower your HR department to keep your workplace free of guys like “Uncle Moe” Lester. (And don’t, y’know, throw sausages at your executive staff.)
Stream it: HBO

Harmony Cobel, Lumon Industries (Severance, Apple TV+)

Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette). Photo courtesy Apple TV+

In a twisted satire on the battle for work/life balance, Patricia Arquette plays Harmony Cobel, a middle manager at the mysterious Lumon Industries, whose employees have opted to surgically sever their workplace consciousness from their nonworking lives by means of a microchip implanted in their brains. Toiling within the labyrinthine halls of the Macrodata Refinement Department, “innies” have no memory of what their “outies” do in the real world, and vice versa. Cobel becomes curiously obsessed with her severed employee, Mark (Adam Scott), moving into the house next door and getting cozy with his sister and her newborn baby. Outie Mark, meanwhile, has no idea his kindly, forgetful neighbor is actually his innie’s icy, deceptive boss. But as sinister as Cobel seems to be, she answers to an even more formidable presence: Lumon’s evil board. We’ll have to wait for Season 2 to discover whether Cobel is a hero or a villain in this story, but as a manager, she’s a mess. Good bosses keep good boundaries.
Don’t be that boss: There are better ways to achieve work/life balance than microchipping your employees. Maybe switch to a four-day workweek and install a nap room instead? (And don’t, y’know, threaten your staff or sing culty hymns to them.)
Stream it: Apple TV+

Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos (The Dropout, Hulu)

Elizabeth Holmes (the real deal!). Photo courtesy TechCrunch

Who wouldn’t want to work at a company that promises to revolutionize the healthcare industry and curb deaths from cancer and diabetes? That’s the vision Elizabeth Holmes, the Stanford University dropout who founded the blood-testing startup Theranos, sold to employees, the public and investors before eventually being convicted of fraud in 2022. And it wasn’t just hedge funders who were victimized by Holmes’ hubris. As documented in the Hulu series The Dropout, patients allege they were falsely diagnosed with cancer and HIV thanks to Theranos’ faulty testing machines, and one accomplished scientist who worked for the company even took his own life.
Don’t be that boss: When your highly qualified employees tell you something is impossible, consider listening. (And don’t, y’know, secretly date your second-in-command.)
Stream it:

Ava Coleman, Abbott Elementary (Abbott Elementary, ABC)

Ava Coleman (Janelle James). Photo courtesy ABC/Matt Sayles

On ABC’s Office-style mockumentary, principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James) one-ups even Michael Scott in the annals of bad-boss history. While a team of hardworking teachers tries to educate students at an underfunded public school, their boss, who got her job by blackmailing the superintendent, commits every HR sin in the book: She flirts inappropriately with the substitute teacher, and when the district sends the school money for badly needed classroom supplies, she squanders it on a useless new sign.
Don’t be that boss: While Principal Coleman covers up bad behavior and encourages employees to criticize each other in meetings, good managers foster an environment of mutual support and accountability. (And don’t, y’know, sexually harass their direct reports.)
Stream it: ABC

Ted Lasso, AFC Richmond (Ted Lasso, Apple TV+)

Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis). Photo courtesy Apple TV+

When American football coach Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) first showed up on the pitch to lead the AFC Richmond soccer club, his aw-shucks management style rubbed his acerbic British players the wrong way. But over the course of two seasons, it became clear that Lasso’s limitless optimism, encouragement and hokey dad jokes (“Our goal is to go out like Willie Nelson — on a high!”) created a real sense of family among the team, even if they didn’t always win. And when he brought in a therapist to resolve the players’ individual issues (and, eventually, his own), the club reclaimed its former glory through collaboration, not competition.

Do be that boss: Remember, as Lasso does, the Walt Whitman quote painted on the wall of his son’s school: “Be curious, not judgmental.” (And don’t ignore your own blind spots.)
Stream it: Apple TV+

Written by Thrive Editorial

October 7, 2022

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