The Mentalist is a television show about Patrick Jane, a con man, a fake psychic, who is propelled into crime fighting by tragedy: the horrible murder of his wife and daughter by a serial killer called Red John.
Despite that unpleasant beginning, and the fact that the show often deals with Jane and his colleagues at the California Bureau of Investigation working on the sometimes gruesome crimes of Red John and other evildoers, the show is actually easy to watch. The main characters are well-defined and likable, and the writing is usually compelling, particularly in the ongoing subplots related to Jane’s relentless pursuit of his family’s killer.
There is a lesson in The Mentalist about rising above tragedy, learning from it, letting it push you in a positive direction where you learn from your mistakes, grow in a meaningful way, and resolve to make the world a better place. But if you look closely, there’s a lot more there that your business can benefit from.
1) Gather intel. – Patrick Jane’s fake psychic ability came from the same characteristic that makes him an exceptional detective: his keen observation skills, and his innate understanding of how people think and behave. Maybe no one would mistake you for a mind reader, but you can do what Jane does: absorb and interpret information that will help your business succeed. Jane reads a lot; he researches his subject matter – sometimes from up close; he asks questions others are afraid to ask. He also pays very close attention, uses intelligence gathered by others, and plans his moves carefully. Are you using the intel-gathering tools at your disposal?
2) Know when to run. — One of the more amusing traits exhibited by Jane is his aversion to physical danger. He delights in provoking dangerous people despite knowing that he never carries a weapon, and possesses few if any self-defense skills. Predictably, his best defense is his ability to run – unless his partners are there to protect him. When Jane thinks there’s a possibility he will get hurt, his usual response is a hasty retreat, or when retreat is impossible – an unabashed duck-and-cover.
The business lesson has less to do with freely displaying abject cowardice than it does with something more palatable and elemental to success: using discretion to avoid danger. Sometimes in the life of any company, there are signals that provide warning, something that begins as a nagging doubt, then grows into a full-scale alarm. Sometimes an opportunity seems too good to pass up – but also too good to be true. And there are the lessons of history that businesses sometimes fail to learn – and then repeat the mistakes of others.
Quick, related aside: at the newspaper where I used to work as a reporter, there was an adage: never interview crazy people. I ignored that a couple of times and the crazies bit me. Obviously, I should have known better, and would have, had I taken that adage seriously.
So, are you involved in something risky that could hurt your business? Are you taking unnecessary risk? Are you working with people who raise red flags in your head? Are you in the middle of a situation where the danger is unmanageable? Take a lesson from The Mentalist: extricate yourself, quickly.
3) Know when to protect your team. – On The Mentalist, Jane frequently pushes the envelope while investigating crime. His methods constantly stray from standard police practice, and he often puts his colleagues in situations where they are forced to apologize because of something he does.
It’s funny stuff, and Jane gets results – he closes cases like the madman he is. But watch closely and you’ll see that he also exercises caution. There are times when Jane realizes his teammates could be seriously hurt by his impending scheme – physically, professionally, legally – and he chooses not to involve them in what he plans to do. He disappears, he puts himself in harm’s way, he takes steps to give his friends plausible deniability.
While it’s probably not a good idea for you to just disappear or hide pertinent facts from your team, or to engage in needlessly questionable tactics, you can learn this from The Mentalist: there are times when you have to minimize the risk to the team, and times when you have to bear the responsibility alone.
True, the business world is full of leaders who use subordinates or co-workers as scapegoats, sacrificial lambs, or fall guys. But who wants to be that kind of leader? Would YOU want to follow that kind of leader?
4) Share the credit for success. The main character on The Mentalist is a shameless showman. He loves the spotlight. But he is a complex character. Beyond the flash of his personal ego gratification, Jane is quick to share credit with his team. At times after solving a crime, he stands in the background, letting others receive the accolades.He gives colleagues credit for good ideas and praises them publicly.
Some people in positions of authority feel the need to keep all the credit for their business’ success for themselves, as if it is a divine right. But that’s dealing from a position of weakness – ego, insecurity – not from strength. In Chapter 2 of the classic business book Good To Great, author Jim Collins says that the super-successful, “Level 5” leaders “channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.” What kind of leader are you?
5) Know when to call for backup. As mentioned above, Patrick Jane is a man who knows when to run away, because he knows that fighting is not within his personal wheelhouse. But he also knows that someone on the team has to take down the bad guy in more than an intellectual way. So Jane knows when to call for help.
In the same way, you’ve got specific strengths, and you know what they are. You also know what they are not. A good leader knows when to seek out the advice and counsel, and talents of others. That means utilizing the skills of other team members and even bringing in new skill sets from outside when needed. It may be that you need the hard skills of a consultant to get a job done. Or it may be that you need someone to train your staff to do something for which they currently are not skilled. Either way, knowing when to call for backup can be the difference between succeeding and failing.
Not everything Jane does on The Mentalist would be a good idea for your business. I’d never suggest you lie to stakeholders, hypnotize people, or make a habit of sleeping on the job (unless you have trained yourself to pay complete attention while taking a nap, as Jane falsely claims in one episode). Still if the show reminds you to do sufficient research, protect and praise your team, avoid needless risk and better utilize both your on-board talent and the skills you can bring in from outside, then this mental exercise will have been well worth it.