Just as Rocky, Jerry Maguire and G.I. Jane inspired countless entrepreneurs to stay strong through the underdog’s fight of pursuing their dreams, films like Pirates of Silicon Valley, The Social Network and The Wolf of Wall Street offered glimpses into the unforeseen challenges that entrepreneurs might encounter, should their dreams come true.
Art imitates life and vice versa. If you’re among those small business owners who enjoy finding parallels between your mission to get your business off the ground and the hero’s journey unfolding on your TV, tablet or phone screen, check out (or revisit) The Blacklist.
This hugely popular American TV series is about a former Navy officer turned global criminal mastermind, who mysteriously surrenders and offers to assist the FBI in capturing the world’s most elusive criminals. Along the way, he schools a rookie FBI profiler in the ways of the world and serves up some killer wisdom that entrepreneurs and small business owners should take to heart:
1. Question authority (always).
The Blacklist is a hit show because the lead character, Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) is a master at questioning—and trumping—so-called authority figures. His character, who radiates diabolical intelligence, deftly maneuvers a complex web of events in which his wits are tested by high level members of law enforcement, international crime figures, or both. The source of Red’s strength, however, stems largely from his refusal to acknowledge any authority as being greater than his own.
Lesson: Operating outside the law isn’t an option for entrepreneurs, of course, but they should always question “authority.” Whether it’s a professor who claims your business idea could never work, a deal-killing lawyer who’d rather play it safe than sorry, or a bank that’s refusing to loan you money, remember that you are the ultimate authority in your own life. If you know in your bones that you’re on the right track, question the validity of any authority figure who would say otherwise—because, ultimately, they’re merely gatekeepers. If you persevere with intelligence and determination, eventually you’ll gain access to what you seek.
2. Set the agenda.
From the moment the audience meets Red—when he’s surrendering himself to the FBI in the first episode — it’s clear that he’s no ordinary criminal. Right out of the gate, he sets the agenda and sticks to it: he has valuable information to trade, but he’ll only speak with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a newbie profiler who’s just starting her first day on the job. From that point forward, it doesn’t matter if the FBI handcuffs Red, sticks him in an underground holding cell, or threatens him. He has the information and he’ll only trade on his terms. It works because he holds all the cards (and, you know, it’s a TV show.)
Lesson: For entrepreneurs, it’s a matter of recognizing your value in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Yes, bringing your product or service to market will require extensive cooperation with an array of business partners, vendors, advisors and others—but that’s exactly why it’s imperative that you set the agenda and stick with it. It’s your business and it needs to work on your terms. You can negotiate the incidental details along the way, compromising where it makes sense, but the overarching agenda must be yours, and it must be upheld above any and all competing agendas.
3. Leverage the best intel available.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Blacklist is that, no matter who Red is up against—arms dealers, the FBI, former clients with an axe to grind—he’s always at least one step ahead of them. He attributes this success to having access to the best intel available and the fluidity of his thinking (as opposed to the FBI’s in-the-box thinking, which Red dismisses as being overly rigid and counterproductive).
Lesson: As a small business owner, you’ve likely heard many references to “thinking outside the box” and the importance staying fluid in your thinking. Equally important is maintaining access to quality business intelligence that will inform your decision making and lead to stronger, more profitable outcomes. Depending on what your business does to generate revenue, the sources you choose to tap into could include software platforms and proprietary or public databases, analytics tools, or go-to mobile apps. But never underestimate the value of human intelligence—those mentors, business partners, key allies, advisors and established clients whose timely and accurate information has consistently pointed you in the right direction.
4. Believe in yourself and your team.
Although Red is, in fact, betraying certain former clients over the course of the show, he is fiercely loyal to the members of his inner circle. It’s his unshakeable faith in himself and his team (along with his access to the best intel available) that successfully propels them from one dangerous close call to the next. It’s also what keeps his team—including Elizabeth Keen—loyal to him.
Lesson: Successful entrepreneurs and small business owners know that business is a team sport. By remaining true to themselves and their proven team members, they steer clear of time consuming and resource draining conflicts. They also benefit from the loyalty, admiration and respect that team members naturally extend to a leader who consistently acts in their best interests.
5. Know what you want going in.
From the moment the audience meets Red, they know he’s nothing if not calculating. Every decision he makes, every plan he formulates, every seemingly innocuous interaction with another character that turns out to have another meaning—all stem from his laser-like focus on achieving the objectives he set for himself when he first approached the FBI. The successes he racks up for himself over the course of the show are largely attributable to Red knowing exactly what he wanted going in to the situation.
Lesson: Not unlike golfers who strive to “be the ball,” entrepreneurs and small business owners often yield the greatest rewards by envisioning a given undertaking’s outcome before getting started on the project. Think of it like reverse-engineering a competitor’s product. If you know what you want the finishing point to look like, you can better ensure that every step you take toward its completion is in line with the desired outcome—and you can avoid all the time consuming, wasteful distractions that would hinder your success.
Quality entertainment challenges and inspires us. If you apply these takeaways from The Blacklist to running your business, you may soon feel emboldened to pursue a whole new level of success.