A Review of ‘Billions’

Billions' Season 5: New Enemies, Reignited Rivalries And The ...

I have been enthralled by the series Billions over the last week or so. For those who haven’t seen it on DSTV or Showmax, it’s a series in which a ruthlessly flawed hedge fund manager is pitched against an equally determined and unrelenting US States Attorney.

Now, far be it for me as a liberal arts major to fully understand the intricacies of the stock markets and the algorithms and economic sleights of hand that go with it. But I have certainly been learning about shorting stocks and going long on information both in the public domain and info obtained via devious means.

This series though, like all shows about people in professional positions like lawyers, doctors, the press and politicians, is about people.  It reveals the nuanced protagonists as both heroic and venal; yet their decisions and maneuvering are motivated by personal interest before all else.

What has struck me, with this production, is that it suggests that once you have suspended your faith and desire for honest justice, situational ethics, guilt and desire and the balancing of favours seem to operate in this society as a more powerful currency than the ‘mighty dollar.’

How true is that in the ‘real’ world, I wonder. Well, I have certainly seen what one of the Billions characters, Brian Connerty, calls ‘political fluidity’ in operation in life, sometimes in places you’d least expect it. That’s one of the reasons I like the group of schools I work in. I respect the person in charge as one of integrity. And that makes all the difference.

The characters in this series are in so many ways morally bankrupt, despite their billions. Their honour is as fake as John Malkovitch’s Russian accent. As much as everyone on the planet ultimately sees themselves as the hero in their own story, moral turpitude is all too often downplayed when people’s personal interests collide with doing the right thing.

And it’s so simple to choose expedience before integrity. Because it’s easier. How tempting it is to give a glowing reference to a person one wants to encourage to leave; how easy to overlook malfeasance in someone one feels sorry for, or bend the rules for someone you like. It’s jolly hard to be fair to everyone. I have sleepless nights sometimes trying to decide the fairest way to treat people. But, I have to live with the choices I make and face myself in the mirror.

Billions explores loyalty and betrayal and assumes everyone is guilty of something. And that is certainly true. All people are flawed in some way. The characters in the show leverage the peccadillos of the players, even those close to them, to wield power. And I guess that’s what it comes down to, far more than money: power.

I am glad I don’t live and work in that sort of wild west, but every institution has the potential to be run like that: using and trading on secrets and inside information and pitting people against each other and the worst of moral ambiguity: rationalizing it as being ‘for the best,’ the end justifying the means. It’s hard to be a straight arrow, but I think it’s important to be honest, especially to myself.

Like the traders and lawyers on Billions, the temptations remain in any institution, because when you have authority over people there is always the possibility for corruption and pursuing self-interest above what is right.

So, we must guard against it. Transparency and honesty are essential.  Knowing what is right is important. A moral compass and careful adherence to the core of an organisation’s ethos keeps you on the straight and narrow. In some faith-based schools, there is a position dedicated to such oversight. In many cases it doesn’t have enough teeth, but it is one way of keeping a school on course.

A leadership team that is allowed, and in fact encouraged, to challenge the leader on matters of moral direction is also important. Good advisors are invaluable. I am lucky. I have such a team. 

And I’ll keep rooting for those with a conscience, even on television shows, if I can find them.

Besides, no one can actually spend billions and there is no price on peace of mind.

Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, and treating people with respect.”

– Stephen Covey

Morality word cloud

‘The truth, the whole truth…’ – Integrity in Leadership




noun: integrity


the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.

“a gentleman of complete integrity”

synonyms: honestyuprightnessprobityrectitudehonour, honourableness,upstandingness, good character, principle(s), ethics, morals,righteousnessmoralitynobility, high-mindedness, right-mindedness, noble-mindedness, virtuedecency, fairness,scrupulousness, sinceritytruthfulness, trustworthiness

“I never doubted his integrity”

antonyms: dishonesty


the state of being whole and undivided.

“upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty”

synonyms: unityunification, wholeness, coherencecohesion, undividedness,togethernesssolidaritycoalition

“internal racial unrest threatened the integrity of the federation”

antonyms: division
  • the condition of being unified or sound in construction.

“the structural integrity of the novel”

synonyms: soundness, robustness, strength, sturdiness, solidity, solidness,durabilitystability, stoutness, toughness

“the structural integrity of the aircraft”

antonyms: fragility
  • internal consistency or lack of corruption in electronic data.”integrity checking”

I was educated by nuns: Cabra Dominicans for the most part, except for a two year hiatus with the Holy Family order. The Domincans’ motto is Veritas (truth) and this has informed much of my philosophy as a leader in education.

Truth and integrity are rare commodities these days despite an unconscious striving for just that in the world. This zeitgeist is evident in urban slang terms like ‘Keep it real,’ ‘on point,’ ‘in fact,’ ‘in vino veritas’ (which really goes back to Pliny’s Rome). ‘seriously?’ ‘genuine?’ and even, if you think about it, in what irritates English teachers because it is so poorly used – the ubiquitous ‘literally.’

But integrity in leadership is vital for the ethical health of an organisation and in fact affects its ultimate longevity. It is most often noticeable when it is absent.

My years in educational leadership have confirmed what the Dominican sisters taught me about integrity:

  1. Integrity is about substance. We must stand for something or else we shall, as the saying goes, fall for anything. Yeats said it best in his poem ‘The Second Coming.’ When [honesty is missing] ‘things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.’ Honesty and honour form the substance and essence of an organisation and the actions of its leaders.

Institutions and bosses without immutable principles at their core, have nothing to anchor them when challenges arrive. It is not enough merely to have policies to cover all eventualities either. The policies must reflect the values of the organisation and those in authority should be knowledgeable about the laws, doctrines and missions which inform them.

I taught once in a faith-based school where the governors and head (and a couple of others in authority) had a rather shaky concept of the faith, very little idea of current educational and employment law or modern trends in education and no clue of the founding mission statement of the corporate to which the college belonged.

Consequently when challenges were made to the these fundamentals (by visiting speakers, visioning exercises and decisions about employment, finances, enrolment and even sportsfield ethics) there was  poor cognition of how to ensure that the school responded in truth and in accordance with the doctrines of its faith’s teaching.

Knowledge is power. It ensures integrity of the message of an organisation.

  1. Appearance versus Reality:  As a scholar of English literature I am more than aware of the importance of being rather than seeming. In an age of virtual reality the concept being ‘like truthful as the teenagers will say permeates business and educational institutions. I had a headmaster tell me once that ‘perception was everything.’ I had to disagree. Substance is everything.

If there is no integrity of action in keeping with the mission statement of an organisation, it will fail in the long run. Mark Twain once said that if you never tell a lie you never have to remember anything. If a school functions from a base of integrity it will survive momentary negative publicity, but woe to the establishment which seeks to gloss over critique and hide behind appearances and propaganda. These are temporal and falter when truth is revealed. And it always is eventually: ‘at the length truth will out.’ (Merchant of Venice: Act 2, Scene 2 line 645).

The ‘just trust us because we are in charge’ only works in the short-term. Beautiful surroundings may mask an empty core briefly, but there is no substitute for being what you say you are. Take away the truth and any operation is a mere shell. It is easy to say one is leading a child-centred school. Daily concern and contact is required to make that a reality. Trust is built gradually over years of genuine relationship building.

Effort is needed to ensure that one is authentic and not merely window dressing. Saying a school values humility and servant leadership don’t make it so if in practice it is hierarchical and elitist.  Believing and repeating unfounded gossip should be anathema if one’s organisation values truth. I was once told that it was okay for a manager to behave in a manner inconsistent with the school’s beliefs because we were ‘behind closed doors.’ No.

Anyone who has been raised to be honourable knows that real character is shown when no one is looking.

  1. Transparency:  Organisations which are not upfront about their dealings and espouse the ‘just trust us’ philosophy will not survive the test of time’s truth. The move mooted by the Gauteng Department of Education to force schools to make their financials public is an interesting one. I worked at a school a long time ago where even the headmaster’s salary was public knowledge. He was a greatly respected man.

Obviously I am not suggesting that everything confidential be revealed, but a re-think of traditional practices of secrecy may be a breath of fresh air for an organisation. Staff and parents (and learners) like to be consulted and informed.

Secrecy suggests there is something to hide.

  1. Avoid hypocrisy: If schools behave consistently and in accordance with their stated mission they will avoid becoming pharisaic.  I learnt a valuable lesson from my own late principal who dressed me down when, as a prefect, I corrected a girl for something I was also doing, despite my having permission to break the rule.

That moment of realization of needing to align what one says and does has stayed with me for over 30 years.  ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ just doesn’t cut it.  School children are quick to sense insincerity and their parents are not blind to the big picture forever.

Leaders must model desired behaviour if they want respect.  I tried to ensure that as a principal I never asked staff to do what I wasn’t prepared to do myself.

However, no one is perfect, and even leaders make mistakes. Owning up to them though is far more honourable than not being transparent and adopting a holier-than-thou approach.

Perhaps this is why Jessica Alb’s ‘Honest’ products are being so maligned currently. http://nypost.com/2015/06/17/the-toxic-lies-behind-jessica-albas-booming-baby-business/

Pointing out a competitor’s failings while falling foul of the same sin not only diminishes one’s integrity in the public’s eyes, but ultimately damages one’s own reputation.

Hypocrisy is far worse than error.

  1. Courage:  It takes courage to be honest, especially when one must speak an unpopular truth. People of principle are often pilloried for speaking out and critique is seen by the insecure as criticism. But one is reminded of the famous words of Rev Martin Niemoller in WW2 –

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”  

Cronyism ensures leaders never face the truth or have to answer to honest criticism. Surrounding oneself with yes-men will not save a leader when the tide turns. And too many sociopathic ‘honest’ Iagos haunt the halls of management offices ready to ‘serve their turn upon’ managers who restrict open discourse because autocracy breeds dishonesty in the rank and file when the messenger of bad news is shot. All too often the response to speaking out is blame and a shift of emphasis from the issue to the bearer of bad tidings. A good leader is open to hearing the truth voiced in kindness however.

“We need to stress that personal integrity is as important as executive skill in business dealings….Setting an example from the top has a ripple effect throughout a business school or a corporation. After nearly three decades in business, 10 years as chief executive of a Big Eight accounting firm, I have learned that the standards set at the top filter throughout a company….[Quoting Professor Thomas Dunfee of the Wharton School:] ‘ A company that fails to take steps to produce a climate conducive to positive work-related ethical attitudes may create a vacuum in which employees so predisposed may foster a frontier-style, everyone for themselves mentality.’ “

— Russell E. Palmer

But if you stand for something you should be prepared to withstand the storms which tend to beset an honest person. Courage is needed to hold true to principle. That is integrity.

So in a world where  ‘reality TV’ is contrived and police stations do not even ask one to swear an oath for an affidavit, it is a struggle to be authentic.  However, it is a battle worth fighting.

“In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”

— Warren Buffet
CEO, Berkshire Hathaway