The storyline of Showtime’s series Billions, starring Damien Lewis as Bobby Axelrod – the bullish and domineering CEO of the highly-successful Axe Capital – is loosely based on the ups and downs of Steven Cohen’s SAC Capital Advisors. In the show, Axelrod has a very close relationship with the confident and driven in-house psychiatrist and performance coach, Wendy Rhoades, played by Maggie Siff, and as a central character to the plot, she is also someone he attributes much of his company’s success to. What this partnership between pure capitalism and medical practice highlights, are questions of ethics and conflicts of interest, played out in the notoriously shady environment of hedge fund management – a space where the free market reigns supreme, without regard for anything else.
In the fast-paced and high-pressure world of finance, only the sharpest and most clinical traders survive in top firms, and so is the case at the fictional Axe Capital in Billions. As the CEO, Axelrod gives his best traders the freedom to explore various avenues – often very unconventional and sometimes borderline illegal – yet he expects nothing but exceptional performance from them in return. There is no time for average at Axe Cap.
Axelrod’s secret weapon, Dr Rhoades, is responsible for the psychological maintenance of these traders, charged with fine-tuning their mindsets and boosting their confidence when needed, to keep them performing at their best for the company. In a scene in the first season, we see Rhoades in action, counselling a despondent trader who is down on his trades by four percent, year-to-date, while everyone else is up double digits. He has come to the “Mojo Mentor” to get his confidence back. Rhoades tells him, “You don’t need meds, you’re just listening to the wrong voice […] you’re ignoring the quiet one telling you where the alpha is.” What ensues is the psychiatrist guiding her patient through a chest-beating psych-up session. “You took down $7.2 million last year, feel that!” she says before returning the riled-up and freshly motivated trader to his desk to take on the world – and to go make more money for the company – but unlikely to have solved any underlying issues he may have been experiencing outside of work.
And whilst the concept of a Rhoades-type character, getting the best performance from employees by reprogram ming their emotions and reactions, has its benefits – particularly for the company – there exists a clear conflict of interest for her as a psychiatrist, between her role in the company and her obligations to individual patients. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, just like a surgeon or general practitioner, and can prescribe medication to patients. One would think that in an ideal world, a doctor would act in the best interests of their patients, unfettered and independent of outside parties who would influence their diagnoses and recommendations. But as a close confidante and employee of a powerful CEO, there seems little chance that Maggie Siff’s character can remain truly independent in her actions and act in the best interests of her “patients” – who are simultaneously colleagues and clients.
What is best for the company is not always best for the psychological health of an employee. And if you add to this that the in-house psychiatrist, Wendy Rhoades, is involved in a complicated power struggle between Bobby Axelrod and her husband – the US Attorney attempting to prosecute the CEO for illegal financial dealings – the conflicts of interest start to multiply. But it is not only in television shows that these positions of power are plagued with conflict. Wendy Rhoades, as an example, according to the show’s creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, is based on several real-life Wall Street psychiatrists, psychologists and performance coaches who served as inspiration for her character.
The issue with these performance coaches is in deciding where we need to draw the line. As the consulting psychiatrist for Billions, Denise Shull says of the scene with Wendy Rhoades and the struggling trader, “That rah-rah ‘You’re great’ stuff is not accurate for how I work […] Beating your chest is for sports.” And this is part of the problem. As a trained psychiatrist, people come to you with real problems. But if your number one priority is to serve the company, it is perhaps not in your best interest to solve those problems. You are paid to make these people better traders, not better humans. In fact, it may even be in your best interest to make them less introspective and deliberate beings, shutting off their emotions rather than engaging with and resolving them. So, while a “trader whisperer” can seem like an effective aid for employees to do their jobs better, when taken to the nth degree, the best trader would in fact be one who is wholly devoid of any human emotion whatsoever. Eventually becoming either a sociopath or a robot.
What this reveals in our capitalist system, represented here in its extreme by the murky ethical standards portrayed at Axe Capital, is that the most sought-after professions in finance today can easily become devoid of any human values or emotions. Good medicine has been turned into bad medicine for the purpose of reaping higher profits, while the moral compass has been swayed in the direction of company interests as opposed to personal well-being. We cannot logically justify the mental manipulation of individuals for the benefit of an organisation, yet there now exist entire industries focused on coaching, beguiling, manipulating and influencing individuals to achieve this aim. Think only of the plethora of life coaches, business performance mentors and motivational speakers, whose income depends on this fundamental concept. Perhaps then it is time, in a world where we wish to gain meaning from our work, that we not only restrict what happens in a company through strict regulations, but also what a company can make happen within us. Ultimately it is our responsibility as individuals to reject the manipulation that is attempted upon us, and it is time for us to self-regulate what we allow into our souls.