Leading with Trust

How NOT to Lead – Six Lessons from Breaking Bad’s Walter White

Walter WhiteI’m a fan of the television show Breaking Bad. If you’re not familiar with it, the show chronicles the transformation of Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) from a mild-mannered, milquetoast high-school chemistry teacher who “breaks bad” and turns into a crystal meth-producing drug lord in order to finance his cancer treatments and provide for his family after his likely death.

The writing, story-telling, character development, and dialogue in the show are top-notch, and despite the edgy subject matter, I was hooked…addicted?…after just a small taste. As the series comes to a close tonight with the premiere of the final eight episodes, I reflected on some leadership lessons from Walter White. He’s an excellent study on how NOT to lead. If you employ these strategies you might achieve temporary success, as Walter White has, but eventually you’ll go down in flames…which is my prediction for Walt’s fate this season.

1. Don’t trust anyone – Walter White never fully trusts anyone, even himself at times. He only trusts people enough for them to do what he needs them to do, so he keeps people on a “need to know” basis, hoards power and information, and makes the final decisions. Trust is the foundation of any successful relationship, and if you don’t have it, you’ll always be looking over your shoulder to see who’s on your trail and your relationships will always have an air of suspicion and doubt surrounding them.

2. The end justifies the means – Walt started with the noble, yet morally ambiguous, goal of wanting to provide for his family. His odds of beating cancer were slim, and with a son starting college and a baby daughter on the way, Walt saw the cost of his cancer treatments leaving his family in financial ruins. What started as a quick-hit scheme to meet the financial needs of his family quickly devolved into Walt being willing to do anything – lie, cheat, steal, murder – to protect his drug empire and meet the dark and desperate needs of his shadow self. This strategy is particularly useful for leaders who view people as objects, just mere speed-bumps on the road to success, and are willing to run over anyone at anytime in order to get what they want.

Pyramid of Choice3. Erode your morality and integrity one choice at a time – Walter White didn’t become an evil mastermind and drug kingpin overnight, it was a series of small choices that led him down the road to destruction. The work of Dan Ariely and Tavris and Aronson provide insight into this slippery slope of human behavior. Tavris and Aronson use the “Pyramid of Choice” to illustrate the “what the hell effect,” which explains how our rationalizations of wrong choices makes it easier for us to make further wrong choices that continually erode our integrity. Moral of the story? Every decision counts. Make good ones that reinforce your integrity.

4. Intoxicate yourself on powerStudies have shown that money and power can make you less empathetic toward other people and Walter White’s experience illustrates that phenomenon. As Walt gains money and power in the drug world he quickly loses sight of his original goal. Jesse, Walt’s former student and partner in crime, points out that Walt originally said he needed to make just shy of $1 million to provide for his family, and now that he had $5 million stashed away it still wasn’t enough. If you’re in a leadership role to fulfill your needs for power, position, and status, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. Get out now!

Say My Name5. Let your ego drive your actions – Over the seasons we learn that Walt co-founded a company called Gray Matter Technologies, sold his share for $5,000, and now the company is worth over $2 billion. Walt never reconciled his ego-needs with the direction his life took, and now that he’s got money and power from his drug business, his ego runs wild and manifests itself as “Heisenberg,” Walt’s street name. In one memorable scene where Walt is arm-twisting a rival drug dealer into becoming the distribution arm for Walt’s superior product, he not only revels in revealing his identity as Heisenberg, he forces his competitor to pay homage to him by demanding that he “Say my name.” Use that tactic in your next team building meeting and see how far it gets you.

6. Manipulate people to get what you want – Walt’s relationship with Jesse is a picture in manipulation. Walt goes so far as to poison the son of Jesse’s girlfriend and convinces Jesse to break up with her so there would be no one competing for Jesse’s time and attention. Jesse is ultimately a pawn in Walt’s strategy to build his drug empire. Demonstrating care and concern for people is a key factor in building trust, and if you aren’t genuine and authentic in wanting to be in relationship with people, others will quickly see through your facade.

It will be interesting to see how the character of Walter White fares over the last eight episodes of this series. We’ve seen plenty of real-life examples of prominent leaders who display these traits and characteristics and their fate isn’t pretty. Will Walter White fare any better? I don’t think so.

Five Lessons From Lance Armstrong’s Failure

Lance Armstrong“I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people.”

Lance Armstrong made that statement to Oprah Winfrey in his public confession this week when he finally admitted to using illegal performance enhancing drugs. It’s the one statement that has stuck with me as I’ve tried to make sense of how and why someone would go to such great lengths to perpetuate a lie and intentionally deceive so many people.

Millions of people have admired Armstrong as an example of how to “Livestrong” and battle through life’s difficult circumstances. Oddly enough, even though his athletic success and personal brand image have been discovered to be a fraud, he’s still proving to be an example from whom we can learn.

Armstrong’s fall from grace offers some important life and leadership lessons:

1. Life’s not about you – Armstrong described himself as a narcissist and said it was his ruthless desire to win at all costs that drove him to be a cheater. I don’t know that I’ve witnessed a public character with such an intense self drive and singular focus (with the possible exception of Tiger Woods, and look at what happened to him) that caused him to be so egotistical and selfish. The joy of life is unleashed when we discover that true happiness comes from serving others and not ourselves.

2. Bullies eventually get what’s coming to them – A self-described bully, Armstrong vehemently condemned and intimidated anyone who stood in his way to success. He burned so many relationships on his way up, that now he finds himself alone in his shame on the way down.

3. If you’re going to say you’re sorry, you should actually be sorry – Several times Armstrong said that he was sorry and took full blame and responsibility for his actions, yet based on other comments he made and the unspoken words of his body language, he left me with the impression that he wasn’t truly remorseful for defrauding everyone. He was apologizing for the sake of apologizing, recognizing that it was the necessary first step in rebuilding his image.

4. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is – Armstrong’s comeback from cancer, Tour de France victories, and life as an anti-cancer crusader seemed to be the perfect tale. He admitted to Oprah that he had devised such a fantastical narrative that it was impossible to live up to the idealistic standards he created. And millions upon millions of people bought it – hook, line, and sinker. Everyone single one of us has our faults and it’s extremely dangerous to place anyone on a pedestal as the end-all be-all example we should follow.

5. The truth will set you free – Oprah closed the interview by telling Armstrong it was her hope that he would find “the truth will set you free.” Jesus spoke those words in reference to people who choose to follow his teachings (John 8:32), meaning they would find the freedom and protection that comes from adhering to His moral principles. We all need a moral compass that keeps us oriented to true north, and Armstrong is an example of what happens when you lead without morality.

Lance Armstrong has a long way to go to rebuild trust with his followers. Is it even possible given the scope of his willful deception? I think it’s going to be hard.

What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.

Navy SEALs, Fame and the Lure of Narcissism – A Cautionary Tale for Leaders

The publication this week of No Easy Day, a book written by former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette (using the pseudonym Mark Owen) detailing his involvement in the killing of Osama bin Laden, offers a cautionary tale for leaders everywhere. How do you deal with cultivating and enforcing your organization’s culture when it clashes with the values of your team members and the evolving behavioral norms of society at large?

The Navy SEALs, along with the other special operation forces of the military, have a long and storied culture of humility, honor, and selflessness. The mantra of their profession has always been “we don’t talk about what we do,” yet that philosophy has come in direct conflict with the desires and decisions of current and former SEALs to cash in on their experiences and expertise.

“We do NOT advertise the nature of our work, NOR do we seek recognition for our actions,” said Rear Adm. Sean Pybus, in an email message to his 2,500 soldiers this week. He said he was “disappointed, embarrassed and concerned” that troops are now openly speaking and writing about what they do.

“Most of us have always thought that the privilege of working with some of our nation’s toughest warriors on challenging missions would be enough to be proud of, with no further compensation or celebrity required. Today, we find former SEALs headlining positions in a presidential campaign; hawking details about a mission against Enemy Number 1; and generally selling other aspects of NSW training and operations. For an Elite Force that should be humble and disciplined for life, we are certainly not appearing to be so. We owe our chain of command much better than this.”

Pybus’ comments seem somewhat hypocritical given the fact that active duty SEALs were given approval to appear in the recent movie Act of Valor, former SEALs and special operatives appeared in the TV show Stars Earn Stripes, the Pentagon and CIA have provided support for an upcoming movie about the bin Laden raid, Zero Dark Thirty,  and SEALs are working on two other movies currently in production.

In their book, The Mirror Effect – How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America, doctors Drew Pinsky and S. Mark Young studied the narcissistic behaviors of American celebrities and their effects on society at large. They suggest that the explosion of reality TV shows, tabloid journalism, instantaneous news via the internet, gossip websites, personal blogs, and social networks are all changing our perceptions of what’s “normal” and facilitating the mirroring of these behaviors in our lives, particularly among the young.

This is the very cultural clash facing the SEALs. In a CNN.com story on this subject, a recently retired senior SEAL said, “It’s a generational thing that is happening to some extent. Some younger SEALs who have grown up in the age of the Internet and instant online communications simply feel it’s their right to talk about their work, as long as they can claim it’s not classified.”

There are no easy answers to this dilemma. In fact, if we as leaders are honest with ourselves, we would be the first to admit that we have our own battles with narcissism. A Ohio State University study found that people who score high in narcissism tend to take control of leaderless groups – it’s in our nature. But because it’s in our nature doesn’t mean that it has to control us.

In dealing with this challenge I’m reminded of the old Native American story about the battle of two wolves inside each of us. One wolf is Evil and it is anger, jealousy, pride, ego, and greed. The other wolf is Good and it is love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, selflessness, and compassion. Which wolf wins? The one you choose to feed.

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