Aaron Sorkin The Newsroom Review: 4 Lessons Millennials Teach Us

Despite the fact that the two major leads for The Newsroom, HBO’s new series by Aaron Sorkin, are played by Jeff Daniels who is 57, and Emily Mortimer, 40, the program provides a great context for watching millennials demonstrate and develop their leadership and managerial talents. The fast-paced, sharp dialogue, a hallmark of Sorkin’s television shows and films, seems natural for all the characters, young and old alike, because as the bumper sticker says, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”

Set in 2010, with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon as the key background event, there is a lot to be angry about, and anchorman Will McAvoy (Daniels), his executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Mortimer), and their team are tasked with making sure their viewers are not only angry, but also informed. Fed up with the perverse combination of media histrionics and apathetic citizens, Atlantis Cable News (ACN) division president Charlie Skinner (played by clearly non-millennial Sam Waterston) decides that television news needs to be reinvented. He and his news team aim to make it driven by expertise, truly competing viewpoints, and even social media, although McAvoy has an assistant do his blogging for him (played wonderfully by Dev Patel).

As my wife and I are both business school professors, we can’t help but to share some timeless management and leadership lessons we have seen demonstrated on the show:

1) Own up to your own mistakes, and protect vulnerable others so that they can learn from their mistakes

Newly-promoted assistant producer Margaret Jordan (Alison Pill) loses ACN’s lead interview subject, Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer, but over her objections, new associate producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) says it’s his fault to McHale and the rest of the team. At the end of the episode, Margaret offers her resignation to Will, but he asks her to stay for two reasons: he thinks she will grow into a valuable team member, and he’s finally learned her name. (Perhaps in the future, there will be human memory upgrades.)

2) Mentor up and sideways; not just down

MTV President Stephen Friedman calls it “reverse mentoring,” but what this really means is that subordinates should be willing to mentor and coach their bosses as well as their colleagues, and not just expect it from their superiors. 

Neal Sampat (Patel) shows Will not only the informational power of the internet and social media, but also their potential for making a positive difference in the disempowered. As a result, Will ends up helping a struggling immigrant with his transportation problem but only if Neal keeps it anonymous.

3) Humbly assume responsibility, take initiative, and solve the problem

Neal tirelessly teaches others what he knows about informational technology, and Jim frequently uses his smart phone to obtain timely information from his friends and sources. Both efforts are critical because ACN is after all, in the fast-paced news business. This should not be surprising as 85% of millennials think their mastery of technology makes them faster than their older coworkers.

4) Celebrate “wins,” large and small

When people work insanely long hours, as these characters do, it’s understandable to leave as quickly as possible at the end of the night, if only to sleep a few hours and shower before returning to work. But, when the team is just beginning to form, and when important victories have been achieved, it’s important to recognize each other’s contributions to the team, as simple as giving each other high fives.  It’s also important to celebrate together, as the ACN team does, enjoying cheap drinks and appetizers at the nearby hotel, and of course, the obligatory karaoke.

What’s wonderful about this show is that it demonstrates that people don’t need to wait to be a certain age or have a certain title to make a positive difference, which is what all good leaders do.

Aneil Mishra and Karen Mishra are business school professors and authors of Trust is Everything (2008) and Becoming a Trustworthy Leader (2012)