The Money Heist: Leadership and Management
In this article, Sandra Comas compares and contrasts the TV series Money Heist (Casa de Papel) with real-life business organizations.
By Sandra Comas, PhD, MBA.
The Money Heist (Casa de Papel) shows fundamental truths on leadership, management, teams, and organizations. In this article we study thought-provoking images and stories from the series, gaining applicable insights for business organizations. The series has exploded in popularity, reaching a tipping point around the world, as it portrays the aspirations and failings of leadership, challenges of management, and the formation of teams with common goals and shared culture. The Money Heist opens the doors and windows on human behavior and the dramatic meeting of the attackers of 1) the Royal Mint and then the Bank of Spain, 2) personnel of the Mint, 3) law enforcement groups, and 4) students who are on a field trip at the Mint. These groups are joined by a public that is dissatisfied with the status quo of government and societal norms, and comes to participate as advocates of the attackers and foes of government entities.
The series focuses on a group of 8 people and their determination to plan and carry out the largest heist in history. One person, the “Professor” leads strategy and planning, and trains a highly selected group for 5 months in an idyllic place in the countryside near Madrid. The painstaking plan is to enter the Royal Mint of Spain, hold students and staff hostage, and spend days inside the building while printing 240 billion euros. The heist terrifies teenagers, teachers, and staff, challenges and mocks law enforcement, and brings a nightmare to life through an understanding of human emotion, desire and behavior. One of the principal characters, Berlin, gives harsh and true observations throughout the heist and series, accepting with some bitterness that his analytical and strategic capability, along with impassioned experience and general intelligence, are insufficient to fulfill the want of his human heart. Death is close to him and he brings it close to others, too.
Is Berlin a leader? What is the organization of which he is part? What is its purpose, its plan, the desired outcome, the preparation to achieve goals? How did it select the people to be on the team? What is the structure and culture that have been designed to bring the organization to achieve its objectives? Perhaps most importantly, what are the thoughts and beliefs that emerge in a time of crisis that determine how the people will engage with each other in this situation, and the likely consequences?
A heist is a robbery. The title in Spanish, house of paper, creates an image of a building made of fragile material, easily knocked down and offering little protection and value. The houses of paper in the series include: the iconographic Royal Mint itself, that crumbles before 8 apparently-ordinary people; the building in which paper money is made, money made freely to be distributed at the will of the printers, whether they be government or “thieves”; the house of beliefs that is weakened by human desire and error, and rebuilt with new beliefs, desire and error. The professor likes paper pieces folded into animals, origami, and he lifts them up, puts them down, releases the origami paper pieces to fly. The professor makes things of paper. Is the origami so different from the Royal Mint, and the money it prints? His hidden place, an old cider factory, is flimsy, make-do, an appearance that is different from inner reality. The professor himself is such a house of cards, as we see his strategy fail, his planning go awry, his self-control prove insufficient. Has each of the thieves seen their lives come to a house of cards? When the houses of cards fail, and the hopes and appearances of each person are shown to us, that is when truth prevails. Truth is the rawness of human behavior. Its effect is shown in all human creation, all that people build. So these are the houses of cards. They are infinite, without number, like the money Nairobi prints by the hour.
The Money Heist is a documentary film on leadership and management. We see the inception of an organization with a director, people hired, financial resources, a clear vision, a detailed strategy, rules and beliefs, public relations management, contracts, payments, risk. The group of 8, first composed of Tokyo, Rio, Nairobi, Helsinki, Oslo, Denver, Moscow, Berlin, shows up to work. Each becomes a valued member and has a role to fill. Over the course of 5 months they live together and train in all skills needed to succeed at their profit goal. They know each other so well that they can communicate without speech and find silent codes to connect. Culture forms through shared purpose, drive, behaviors and beliefs.
Leadership develops in each person among the attackers. Raquel, the chief of law enforcement, is a director of her organization just as the professor is of his. They meet and test and push each other’s leadership of their separate group. They become engaged in a match between two organizations, one authorized and one not authorized. We are forced to consider that trembling delicate line between leadership for common good, and leadership for individual gain and harm to others. The ethics, the values, of each organization are drawn into sharp focus and define a path for decision making, team formation, hierarchical protocols, and crisis management. Fear prevails, and cowardice. The people who become or are fearless, who manifest their human emotions of anger, sadness, and love, who take responsibility, who have expertise and knowledge, these people show leadership.
In their leadership they show resilience, that special stuff, that pluck, that grit, that enables one to bear the brunt of brutal challenge. This resilience is not only the characteristic of each of the attackers, who must manage and survive through multiple tough challenges. Law enforcement loses, in the eyes of the Professor, and in the view of law enforcement officials themselves. They show resilience as they see what they save, and as they bear what and whom they cannot. And the students and teachers? They show their differing ways of adapting, gaining understanding and strategy to survive, ultimately prevailing in this sole goal. The kidnapped must bear not only the vicissitudes of the attackers, and imperfect strategy of the police, they also bear the aggressive irresponsibility, inner chaos and carnality of the Royal Mint’s manager. The resilience of many, in each group, enables the survival and growth of each. Even those who perish, such as Moscow, have shown commitment to purpose and value, and it is their certain devotion and spirit that give them the resilience to fulfill their noble roles.
The managers are contrasted, some seemingly better than others, some good and one, Arturo, is awful. The managers take the plan and make it happen. On the law enforcement side, how is the management structured? Is there clarity regarding the roles of Prieto and Raquel, of one division of law enforcement and the other? Can they communicate effectively to succeed at their goal to end the siege and return all hostages safely to their homes? Do they have aligned beliefs and interests? Indeed, the series shows the misalignment among people in each of the organizations and the powerfully harmful impact that has on plans and people.
House of Paper, The Money Heist, is also a business. It is wildly popular, having reached a tipping point that burst the series around the world into multiple languages in innumerable homes and hearts. It has created an iconography including the Dalí masks and red uniforms, and the oft-repeated phrases and gestures of characters. It is an attitude. It is a culture. It is a business and it prints money too, just like the Royal Mint, and it will continue to do so for some time. How did the project of the series begin? Who was hired and for what roles? How much time was spent in preparation and rehearsal? What were its resources? Where did they first set up a scene and gather the team members together to share vision, purpose, action? In essence the series of The Money Heist also is a story about itself, the formation of an organization whose goal it was to create, write, produce, market, show this series. Idea to completion, idea to market, idea to a viral commentary on money, the human beliefs and hopes it represents, the relationship between the institutions of government and the people they are meant to serve. The series is a business with a large organization, as shown in the repeated and abundant list of people to credit. Netflix, too, is a business, and it bought this product, continuing to make, market, and sell it.
The House of Paper may too be a passing cultural icon, a series of reflection on our time. Its essence shows that the series is built on uncertainty and can crumble in the public imagination. It is a profound illustration of fundamentals of leading, leading nimble change, inspiring vision, purpose, and human bond. It shows the essential value of managerial leadership, implementing a strategy and managing inevitable challenge. It shows the powerful formation of a tightly knit team that fails and also succeeds. The series teaches us 10 important lessons for organizational success: find opportunity, build leadership culture, offer nimble vision, gain emotional and social intelligences, practice persuasion in networks of communication, engage creativity, design strategy, and know your values.