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Beth Dutton

One of the most remarkable TV characters at present is Bethany Dutton, played by Kelly Reilly, in Yellowstone (2018-2023), a series produced by Kevin Costner. Beth is the daughter of the owner of one of Montana’s largest ranches. The story tells of the Dutton family’s actions in and around Bozeman to protect their historic property against assaults from competing interests. At all costs.

The complexity of Beth’s character is documented in a full article by The Atlantic’ (2022): ‘She is an agent of chaos. She is mercurial. She is cunning. She is funny. She is wise. She is cruel.’ Beth Dutton is a perfect anti-hero who fiercely resists established rules while drawing sympathy from the audience.

The winning character-building recipe outlined in The Writer’s Journey(1998) relies on the following steps: identify a mix of universal and unique qualities a broad audience can identify itself with (without falling into stereotypes); Inject some flaws to humanize the character; give them an ‘arc,’ i.e., an evolution associated with some learning experience; make the character willing to sacrifice part of themselves for an ideal; have them show how they deal with death.

With Beth Dutton, the writers have surpassed themselves. For my part, I admire Beth’s courage, thrivingness in conflict, wit, and ability to cut through nonsense. She brings ‘radical truth’ and ‘radical transparency to a level that would deeply move Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio.

Her personage is particularly refreshing when considering that avoiding difficult discussions and open disagreements is one of the plagues of the modern corporate world. As captured in a new McKinsey paper entitled ‘Into all problem-solving, a little dissent must fall’ (2023): ‘What’s missing in many companies […] is the use of ‘contributory dissent’ or the capabilities required to engage in healthy if divergent discussions about critical business problems.’

The issue is not new. In What Makes Great Board Great(2002), a renowned academic and practitioner, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, noted the prevalence of groupthink in corporate boardrooms and extolled the virtue of dissent. He encouraged chairpersons not to confuse dissent with disloyalty.

There is a mirror between an audience and a character. Beth Dutton’s appeal to viewers reveals information about society. It signals that many citizens are open to dissent. It would not be surprising if there were more and more ‘Beth Dutton’ in TV series and movies in the coming years. It is what the audience – and society – seems to be craving.

For the same reason, it would not be surprising if versions of Beth Dutton surface in executive committees and boardrooms. These notes argued that the world must transition to a new paradigm and ‘grow up’ after forty years of ‘cheap everything.’ Adding a raging debate about capitalism – masterfully summarized in a new chapter of ‘Principles of Corporate Finance(2023) – presages tough decisions ahead with increasingly difficult board deliberations.

As society enters a new age of dissent, boards of directors and executive teams heading for success will find ways to welcome Beth Duttons or to channel their inner Beth.

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