« 3 Questions for a Leader | Main | United or Divided? »

Leadership lessons from Reed Hastings and Netflix

You can make a great profit, maybe a HUGE profit.  The project is legal.  It is unique.  Plus, the content could spill over into more revenue streams.

But... is it ethical?

In 2007, novelist Jay Asher published a book involving teenage suicide called 13 Reasons Why.  I do not know why he thought it was a good idea, but darkness often sells in today's marketplace.  

Here is the problem (from The Parent Resource Program):

More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.

Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 suicide attempts by young people grades 7-12.

Actress Selena Gomez co-produced the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher's book by the same name.  The focus of the series and book are 13 videos created by a seventeen year old girl to explain why she commits suicide, which she does in the last episode.  

I have not read the book nor seen the series because I refuse to have full nude images of a teenage girl being raped and a teenager's bloody suicide in my brain.  I still have images from the movie, The Exorcist, which I watched about 44 years ago (Not recommended).  I don't need any more toxic waste in my brain.

Co-producer, Selena Gomez, blows off critics of the series in a NY Daily News article.  It is disappointing that Gomez, who has been in rehab to overcome some of her life wounds, could not have the wisdom to kill the series rather than promote it.  One of her comments is:

I just wanted it to come across in a way that kids would be frightened, but confused...

I have talked with leaders, parents and kids who have seen the 13 Reasons Why series.  There is a growing wave of people, including many suicide prevention experts, who are upset about a television series available to young children that promotes suicide at any age.    
In Central Oregon where we are visiting, people are deeply concerned about teen suicide motivated by the show - article in The Bulletin.  We were told recently that two 12 year old children committed suicide in Redmond and Bend within the last two months.  

Shame on Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO

In 2011 Reed Hastings was already four years into testing streaming video and changed Netflix subscriptions to separate DVD delivery and streaming subscriptions.  There was a huge uproar over what people perceived as a price increase, whereas in truth he was adding a new service that had passed its market test.  Part of the issue was also he was ahead of the trend.  

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix
I retained my Netflix subscription through that uproar.

This week's Harvard Business Review hails Hastings and Netflix as tied for #1 as a transformational business leader because of the revenue they generate from streaming content.

The article evaluates businesses based on three sets of metrics: (1) new growth, (2) core re-positioning, and (3) financial performance. I wonder, would they name a porn king as a transformational business leader because of phenomenal revenue growth in their new web business?  I seriously doubt it, because it would be inappropriate.  Yet a growing amount of original Netflix content is eerily inappropriate.

What is the more important standard for a truly "transformational business leader":  ethics, growth, or a combination of both?

Wait... is this consistent with Netflix Values?

Netflix has 9 core values, each of which are defined more specifically by four statements.  Here are some Netflix values that indicate why 13 Reasons Why and other objectionable content is exactly what Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wants of his people:

  • Passion  |  You care intensely about Netflix' success
  • Impact  |  You focus on great results rather than on process
  • Impact  |  You exhibit bias-to-action, and avoid analysis-paralysis
  • Selflessness  |  You seek what is best for Netflix, rather than best for yourself or your group

I regularly help companies define what I call "company culture cornerstones". They include a mission, vision, values, and accountability to live them out.  Most people are aware of having a mission, vision, and values, however without accountability to live them out your company risks becoming an Enron.

I have used Netflix's values as an example.  Nevertheless, there are two concerning flaws with Netflix's values that increase the risk of serious mistakes as Netflix grows:

#1  -  Each value statement starts with the pronoun "You," rather than "We" (my preference) or "I."  "We" or "I" is a statement by an individual, or group of individuals committing themselves to behave a certain way.  "You" demands others to live by your standards, which may be higher than the standards you exhibit in your behaviors.

#2  -  Every Netflix value is narcissistic towards Netflix, their growth and profit.  None of their values commit a Netflix employee to be a good steward of the power they possess as a leading media company.  None speak of integrity, ethics, empathy, serving others, values of moral character, or are outward-focused.  

When it comes to Netflix values, they scream "It's all about me!"  There seems to be a total, intentional, blind spot to communal responsibility.  The standard is profit and growth without regard for how any negativity of their work could hurt others.

I have said for years that most of America and the secular, highly civilized world have three core values, consciously or subconsciously.  Netflix sadly demonstrates them without remorse:

#1 - It's all about me
If it's good for Netflix, we do not care who it hurts.

#2 - It's not my fault
It's not Netflix's fault that teenage suicide rates are way too high in America and worldwide.  It's not Netflix's fault that social media and Hollywood propagandize actors whose bodies and faces which have been edited to be thinner, younger, stronger... and who act out fake relationships no one will ever achieve.  

It's not Netflix's fault that 5th graders are watching 13 Reasons Why episodes with repetitive scenes of hopelessness, a full nude rape scene of a young teen, and a blood-spurting teen suicide.  Our local 5th grade classes are filled with kids who talk about the series, yet it seems many parents are not aware their kids are watching.  In reality, younger kids probably are too.

#3 - It's not my problem
I was told a 12 year old Central Oregon girl committed suicide a few days after Easter this year...  after watching 13 Reasons Why.  But that's not Netflix's problem.  It's a free country with free speech, unless of course, you have an opinion that disagrees with recognizing a third or fourth gender.

It's not Netflix's problem that people cannot appreciate the creativity of the 13 Reasons Why series without becoming depressed and killing themselves.  It's not Netflix's problem that as a company they did not even provide a notice to parents about potentially objectionable content, or remind parents that the service includes parental controls.

But wait, Netflix IS selective about their content

Earlier this month, The Truth Seeker and other media reported Netflix banned the documentary, The Red Pill, from their service.  Now, it's likely that Netflix simply decided not to list the movie on their platform. But it begs the question: Why?  Is it too violent?  Is it promoting death?  It is inspiring rape?  Is The Red Pill poor quality?

No.  The Red Pill is an award-winning documentary on the Men's Rights Movement.  I guess Netflix is more concerned about suppressing topics controversial in today's society than saving teenagers from despair, rape, and suicide.  Wow...  At least you can say Netflix lives out its values.  It makes you wonder if Netflix can recover the next time its stock goes in the tank.  Companies without ethics that are obsessed with profits do not last forever.

If you are interested, here is a Reddit post that provides a list of 18 video streaming platforms where you can watch The Red Pill instead of Netflix.

Time to cancel Netflix

I stuck by Netflix when they had their pricing debacle years ago.  However, earlier this month I cancelled our Netflix account.  I'm done with the company.  Why support a company that puts profit above the safety of vulnerable kids and people who struggle with depression?

"Anything goes as long as you make money" is not the measure of a GREAT leader.  It is the justification of a fool, and quite possibly, an evil person.  I hope the Netflix team behind 13 Reasons Why is the former, not the latter.

Unfortunately keeping a Netflix subscription endorses content like 13 Reasons Why, and more dark media similar to it.

Consumer Reports offers five alternatives to Netflix.  Find a company that has and lives out better values for the common good, not the selfish good.  CR recommendations fail to endorse Amazon Video, which I have, or Hulu - the other two leaders.  If you want DVD's, try Redbox.

What could Netflix have done differently?

First, they could re-evaluate their company values.  Great leaders say "no" to immoral profits.  Second, Netflix could have looked at teenage suicide rates and decided to use their power and influence to fight it, rather than exploit it.

Second, some professionals conclude people who contemplate suicide may have a chemical imbalance.  I don't believe this is 100% accurate.  My understanding is the actual number of people who suffer from a chemical imbalance is less than many healthcare professionals would like us to believe.  Still, it is a cause of the problem.

A 20 year old cousin of a friend of mine committed suicide this week.  He was on antidepressants to help with a chemical imbalance.  Too many people commit suicide when on antidepressants.  I am not an expert who can join the debate as to whether suicide is a side effect of antidepressant drugs, or people who commit suicide were chemically going to make that decision anyway.  

The bottom line is Netflix could have helped further the debate on the pros and cons of antidepressants.  It could have reinforced solutions for life, rather than increase profits by dramatizing despair and death.

Third, my understanding is people who commit suicide want to end a story that is occurring in their life and start a new one.  The intense emotional desire for change blinds them to the fact that suicide does not just close a chapter of their life story, it concludes the book of their life story.  

Basically the desperation to close their current story makes them believe a fool's choice.  A fool's choice is when you think there are only two bad options.  In this case, a person can either stay in their unhappy situation or commit suicide, and anything is better than their current situation.

Russell Moore delves deeper into ending your story in a recent blog post.  Instead of profiting from misery, Netflix could have creatively and effectively taught people how to comprehend the lie that suicide closes one chapter.  They could have taught how it ends a life story, and they have other choices.

Fourth, it is common for people contemplating suicide to view themselves as victims.  In life we consider ourselves a victim, villain, or hero;  or a combination of two.  The victim is narcissistic.  No one has problems like mine.  No one is as bad as me.  It's all about me.  It is an amazing dynamic of human emotions that a pity party can feel so good, so self-justifying, so right... when it is wrong.

The message of a victim is that others caused my problems, rather than I can take responsibility for my actions.  Another victim message is, "I'm not good enough."  Some therapists motivate patients to extend therapy by convincing them they are victims.  The pity party sessions can be captivating.

This is wrong. Instead of encouraging people to feel like victims who can take an "easy way out" because they are not good enough, Netflix could have taught people how to overcome these feelings and better understand their worth as a human being.

Fifth, Netflix glorified suicide as a revenge strategy.  Someone raped and/or otherwise abused you.  You were neglected.  You were bullied.  Make them feel bad by killing yourself.  Unfortunately that does not always happen.  Even if it does, you paid too much to open the abuser's heart to their own mistakes.

Instead of encouraging suicide as a revenge story, Netflix could have exposed how this is a lie.  Netflix could have empowered people, instead of encouraging them to kill themselves.

Sixth, this is a personal belief of mine:  Netflix eliminated God, from 13 Reasons Why.  No version of God is given.  Jesus only gave one command - to love one another.  Couldn't there have been at least one person in the series at least attempting to demonstrate this foundation of human meaning?

When I was 21 years old I had two best friends, in addition to my wife.  One of them, Smitty, invited me to lunch one day.  As we drove home I remember a moment as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge when he asked me what I believed about God and who goes to heaven.  I did not have a solid answer, and Smitty let the conversation move on to other topics.  Thinking back, he was very troubled and trying to get answers.

Within one or two weeks of that lunch, Smitty committed suicide.  It broke my heart.  I had an emotional crater in my chest for years and still regret that none of us, his friends, perceived what he was planning.

It is so common for people contemplating suicide to question their spiritual beliefs about God and heaven.  They also give hints.  By leaving out God, Netflix avoided many of the reasons NOT to commit suicide such as:  You are unique and valuable.  God designed you.  God has a plan for you.  God ALWAYS loves you.

Unfortunately, Netflix had one objective in mind that massively overpowered any other:  PROFIT.  And people are taking notice.

If you want to hear more reactions to the series, I recommend reading articles in Family Life, Crosswalk, and the NY Post.  Concerns are rising rapidly.

In Conclusion

Anyone can create trash TV with nudity and violence.  It takes a truly great company, with truly great leaders, to say "no" to profitable, yet potentially dangerous content.

Decades ago I participated in cell-to-cell ministry in San Quentin State Prison and was the first volunteer director of Prison Fellowship in the San Francisco Bay Area.  One inmate I met had done time for creating illegal pornography.  Back then, more than just child pornography was illegal.  I remember he desperately wanted to find a real job.  He admitted to me that he could make a lot of money creating porn.  He knew how to do it, how to sell it, but he did not want to hurt people anymore.

As I read about 13 Reasons Why and it's disturbing imagery, I could not help but recall my conversations with that inmate and wonder if media companies are exploiting people for profits.  This guy took a stand.  Too bad Reed Hastings did not do the same.  What about now, Mr. Hastings?  How many kids have to die for you to change your standards at Netflix?  What if it was your child committing suicide after watching 13 Reasons Why?  (I hope that does not happen.)

I understand the value of creative cinema and pushing the envelope.  However, I completely disagree with the narrative, tone, and presentation of the character issues in this show.  It is a sign that Netflix is headed in the wrong direction.

It is unfortunate that Netflix's leaders did not think twice before giving 13 Reasons Why the green light.  If they had, perhaps a few young people might still be alive, and parents not wounded for life by the loss of a child.

What kind of leader will you be when you have to choose between easy profits and doing what is right?

Every leader has to make this choice, and some have to make it often.

Stay connected with us!
We'll only send you our best stuff

  • Leadership/management insights
  • Interview tips and meeting ideas
  • New blog posts
  • New podcast episodes
  • Special promotions

Certified LEADER Program
Dave's Charm School
Hire the Best
Leadership Essentials
Talent Assessments

Customer Login
About Us
Contact Us
Speaking & Workshops

© MANAGEtoWIN, Inc.    Terms of Use    Privacy Policy