'Succession' Shows That When You’re Never Uncomfortable, Your Career Can’t Grow

This HBO hit teaches three depressingly real work lessons.
"Succession" illustrates how extreme wealth makes any sensible career growth impossible.
Peter Kramer/HBO
"Succession" illustrates how extreme wealth makes any sensible career growth impossible.

I put off watching HBO’s “Succession,” assuming it was going to be an unchecked celebration of rich white people’s opulence in New York City. But after bingeing the first two seasons, I see that it’s actually a PSA against greed that corrupts your personal and professional relationships.

With real-life parallels to the Murdoch family of Fox News and other media tycoons, the show follows Logan Roy, the fearsome founder of Waystar Royco, as he confronts his mortality after a stroke and struggles to name a successor. Logan wants to keep the media empire that he built in the family, but the problem is that raising his children to please him instead of to think for themselves has made them all ill-equipped for this challenge. When keeping your boss happy means protecting his piles of money that you will inherit, there is little room for the psychological safety necessary for experimentation and personal growth. Why offer any risky idea if it might invoke your dad’s rage?

Tellingly, when at a meal Logan asks his children to speak freely about whether he should sell the business, they can only praise him. They dare not offer their real opinion until they are one-on-one. “Dad, I think it is possible that you’ve sometimes, somewhat chilled the atmosphere of free-flowing debate,” daughter Siobhan publicly offers with many qualifiers.

Oscillating between a Shakespearean tragedy and a dark comedy, the show contains a running theme about how extreme wealth and the desire to maintain it can make any sensible career growth impossible.

Invisible labor can maintain a delusional world view

You don’t envy the Roy family members’ trapped lives. And after seeing the injury and kill rate of the employees at Waystar Royco, you would never want to work for these deluded rich people, either. As the company’s chief operating officer, Roman Roy, Logan’s feckless youngest son, personally rushes a rocket launch so he can display it at his sister Siobhan’s wedding reception against the advice of his engineers. When it explodes and he learns no one died ― but a few appendages have been lost ― Roman rejoices: “It’s just an arm and a couple of fucking thumbs?... That’s great.”

Middle son Kendall, who needed his dad to bail him out of a Chappaquiddick-like incident, has completely caved to his father’s demands by the second season, even if that means ending a new media business he believes in. “If Dad didn’t need me right now, I don’t exactly know what I’d be for,” Kendall plainly puts it. None of the Roy siblings know how to be a professional without invoking their dad’s name or money.

How can you grow if you’re never forced to step outside the world of your hired help and sycophants, and potentially fail? When protecting your money becomes your primary motivator for seeking power in business, as it does for Logan Roy and, by extension, all of his children, you become a nearsighted fool, grabbing at ill-thought opportunities and blind to the talents of people you perceive to be beneath you.

It reminds me of what real-life heiress Abigail Disney once said about her family suddenly having more money than she could ever spend. She observed that when her father got a private jet, he lost his way in life. “They enable you to get around a certain reality. You don’t have to go through an airport terminal, you don’t have to interact, you don’t have to be patient, you don’t have to be uncomfortable. These are the things that remind us we’re human,” Disney said, later adding, “It creates this notion that you’re a little bit better than they are.”

Logan and his children are the kind of people who model this notion. In an extended sequence in the second season premiere, we watch an army of uniformed housekeepers and cooks, many of color, prepare the Roys’ “summer palace” for their arrival. To the Roys, the service workers are invisible adornments. When Logan proclaims in a fit that they will be having pizza, we watch the hired help immediately chuck untouched lobster and shrimp cocktails into the garbage at his order. By always including such sequences of the people in the background, “Succession” pointedly reminds us of the invisible labor necessary to maintaining the Roys’ frictionless lifestyle, even if they may never wake up to this fact.

The dehumanizing business language is all too damaging

The show also demonstrates how the language used at work informs whatever office culture results. A 2018 study found a connection between franchises’ mission statements and whether workers filed complaints against them with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The franchises with mission statements that embraced “urgent action” over “thoughtful consideration” had higher EEOC complaints.

At Waystar Royco, the winner-take-all language is vicious and embedded in each Roy’s DNA. Shuttering a new media business where the staff is seeking to unionize is equated to carving “that shit like a pumpkin” by a petulant Roman. When the opportunity to fire analog workers at ATN media comes up, hungry son-in-law Tom says he relishes the chance to take “skulls.”

After being humiliated at a public dinner where her father refuses to name her as his successor, Siobhan enacts revenge by waging a war of words. In a panel discussion, she implies that her father should be pushed to make way for younger people like her. “Sometimes I think you need a good old-fashioned dinosaur cull,” she states to an audience that includes her father.

The language study found that when participants read motivational messaging of how they should get things done, those who were given urgent-action mission statements tended to make decisions that violated EEOC discrimination policies, such as choosing to hire a younger replacement for an aging sales manager. It’s a reminder that the business language of “Succession,” which prioritizes winning, also has real-world consequences for people deciding between the easy way or the right way at work.

The hollow slogan “money wins” is the fastest way to lose your soul

“Money wins,” Logan Roy declares when he secures a deal for acquiring his rival Pierce Global Media. It’s the family career motto that he passes down to each of his children, and it is what makes them incapable of growing up. The Roys are taught to confuse their riches with entitlement. They want to get in the room where it happens because it’s their birthright, but it’s clear that they would repeat their father’s mistakes if they actually ran the company. When you are taught to make career moves based on financial gain alone, you end up like Roman, who is more concerned with how long his image appears on training promos than any continual learning opportunity he’s given. Or like Kendall, who screams at staff and knocks their snacks off the table to motivate them. Or like Siobhan, who casts herself as a liberal version of her father but reveals herself to be no different in her calculations of doing what is right or doing what will save the company money.

During the panel discussion in which Siobhan compares her father to a dinosaur ― it’s called “Family Ownership and Corporate Continuity in the Digital Age” ― she presents herself as the new hope of her father’s embattled company. The panel is held in the wake of a magazine exposé of a Waystar cruise ship sexual abuse scandal.

“Sometimes companies develop bad habits, and you need fresh eyes, clean hands and new ideas to address those,” Siobhan says. The irony is that she and her siblings offer exactly the opposite vision by operating under their father’s principles. She is only participating in the panel at the suggestion it will salvage a potential acquisition for her father. Like the rest of her siblings, she has learned from her dad too well.

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