Leadership lessons from The Walking Dead – (Donald Trump, take note!)

by Sarah Firisen

Anyone can be in charge. Being in charge isn’t the same as being a leader. Twd

We've all known great leaders. People that we’d walk through fire for, but what makes them such great leaders? As the Presidential primary season gets under way, perhaps it’s worth considering what leadership really is. Because despite the inevitable primary bickering over whether a businessman, senator or a governor makes a more effective President, what we’re really looking for is leadership.

Are great leaders born or can these traits be developed? Or is it a combination of the two? People are born with certain natural abilities , but per Malcolm Gladwell’s, Outliers hour rule, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery (this of course probably goes for most things). So does this mean that with enough conscious effort, anyone can be a great leader? I do think that motivation has a part to play. The key word here is “great”. Someone who wants to lead for reasons outside of personal aggrandizement, outside of pure power for power’s sake. Maybe, a person with those core attributes can work towards achieving mastery.

Having worked in the leadership development field for a number of years now, I would say that “leaders” can be divided into various camps. There’s the “people love me and would follow me to the end of the earth” guy; it’s probably not true if you’re that sure it is. There’s the “I’m tough but fair, and people respect that”; yeah, I bet they don’t. There’s the total asshole who really doesn’t care and thinks that as long as he/she is producing results, his leadership won’t care how dissatisfied his people are. Maybe he/she is right, in the short-term. But how can that be anything but a short-term strategy. You need people with expertise for results. People have choices. People with expertise always have choices. You can only get away with being an asshole for so long. Finally, there’s the “leader” who says: “yes, I’m a total asshole to work for. Don’t care. I pay my people so well that they’ll put up with anything”.

Here’s the problem, there’s copious evidence that, if that ever worked, it’s working less and less well with millennials. They’re not motivated by the same things we were. They want work/life balance and work that provides them with a sense of purpose. Their main driver isn’t money or status. So even if this particular asshole dragged his people behind him in the past, odds are that’s an increasingly losing tactic.

So what do we all look for in a leader? And if you aspire to be a great leader, what traits should you be looking to develop in your 10,000 hours?

Two books that have had an impact on my thinking are “Why should anyone be led by you?” and “the Crucibles of Leadership.” The former by Gareth Jones and the latter by Robert J. Thomas. Jones in both his book and the HBR article that preceded it really challenges the notion that leadership is a right rather than a duty. What makes a person worthy of being followed? What are some of the requisite capabilities and how can those be developed? Anyone can be managed by you, but not anyone can be led by you.

In “The Crucibles of Leadership”, and it’s related HBR article Robert J. Thomas works from the thesis that most great leaders, maybe all great leaders, have gone through a major crucible experience that has changed them, “one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances”. This experience helped mold them into their best leadership self, “the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.” We all experience major and often traumatic life experiences, what is different about some people is how they navigate their way through the crisis, then learn and grow from the experience. According to Thomas, ”Great leaders don’t see themselves as the victims of their circumstances, but instead accept their reality. Their crucible experience forges them into extraordinary leaders.”

So that’s some of the literature. But now let’s look at an application of some of these theories. One of my favorite TV shows these days is The Walking Dead. Every time I try to get my boyfriend to watch it he gives me this look and says rather dismissively, “I don’t watch shows about zombies”. What I can’t get him to see is that it’s not a show about zombies. I mean, on one level it clearly is; the premise of the show is that a virus has afflicted humanity, turning the dead into zombies. A zombie bite will turn a living person into a zombies, or walkers. There are zombies everywhere. But on another level, it’s not really a show about zombies, it’s a show about people. About how people cope when their lives are turned upside down. When civilization as they’ve known it is in ruins. When lawlessness reigns and survival at all costs is a valid life choice.

Rick Grimes, our hero, was just a small town sheriff's deputy in rural Georgia with a wife and son, an everyman. A couple of episodes in, Rick is already emerging as a natural leader. By season 6, he’s developed into a great leader who people will follow into hell. Why? In all likelihood, if the virus hadn’t broken out, Rick would never have grown into the leader that he is by the current point in the series. He would have just been that guy. That good guy who went to work every day, went to his son’s football practice and tried to live the best life he could.

Rick has various crucible moments, in fact, a case could be made that every episode piles on a new one. But two of his early major ones are when he has to kill his best friend Shane for the good of the group of survivors and when his wife Lori dies. But everyone in The Walking Dead has lost people. Usually many people. Everyone has faced death and committed terrible acts they never would have thought themselves capable of. These experiences harden some, drive others mad. What’s different about Rick?

Well to go back to “Why should anyone be led by you”, Rick exhibits authentic whole leadership. He has great self-awareness, his values are clear to himself and to the people around him. He knows his blind spots, his strengths and weaknesses and he builds a team of people around him to compensate for his weaknesses rather than denying them. Which means he knows and acknowledges the strengths of his people.

Rick has a clarity of vision for himself and for his group. That vision is clearly and firmly articulated: his group knows, he ALWAYS has their back and will never leave anyone behind. In this brutal, lawless, world, that clarity of purpose binds his group together and to him.

Rick’s not the “best man” in the group, that honor has been shared by Glenn and Hershel.

Glenn has never killed a living person. Hershel was until his death the moral compass of the group. But Rick, while he has killed, has a very strict and clear moral code. This is encapsulated in the three questions he asks new potential group members: how many walkers have you killed? How many people have you killed? Why? The question isn’t have you killed, but why have you killed. Asking these questions quickly gives Rick a sense of the choices the person has made and insight into their beliefs and morality

Rick’s not the smartest person in the group and he’s definitely not the best survivor, that’s Darryl. There are people better, tougher people. But there’s never been any real challenge to Rick’s leadership, because there’s more to true leadership than being the best at everything (Trump might reflect on this fact).

It’s often, maybe usually, the case that the most fearsome encounters the group has had have been with other groups of survivors. And these groups always have a leader, because most people need to follow someone. And in all cases, the seeds of the group’s destruction can be found in the flaws of the leader.

The charismatic leader of Woodbury, Georgia, The Governor is a man who, like Rick Grimes led a wholly unremarkable life before the outbreak. He has had his own potential crucibles, his daughter was bitten and became a walker. Losing his daughter made him cold, severe and paranoid. The Governor reveals himself to be a brutal, irrational leader.

While initially, Woodbury seems to be a sanctuary, it quickly becomes clear that The Governor deals with potential threats to his community by executing most newcomers. Finally, after leading his group into a totally unnecessary and unsuccessful ambush, the Governor turns on his own people, slaughtering some, abandoning the rest.

Gareth, is the leader of Terminus, seemingly the ultimate sanctuary, luring people in with the posted signs for miles around, “Sanctuary for all. Community for all. Those who arrive survive.” But actually, it’s a community of cannibals but whose actual motto is “You're the butcher or you're the cattle.“

Gareth claims that there was a time when Terminus was a real sanctuary and he was a good, generous man who was willing to help others to survive. However, after a brutal attack on the community, his crucible, he became a cunning, brutal, cold blooded mass murderer.

Again, he’s another charismatic, intelligent man, who claims to be just taking extreme measures to stay alive and to keep his group alive. But in doing so, he’s lose his humanity, any capacity for empathy he ever had.

Dawn Learner, the leader of a group of police officers residing at Grady Memorial Hospital.

She at least initially seems to have good intentions as she attempts to maintain peace in the brutalized and corrupt system she runs.

She’s strong, pragmatic, focused but stern. But she’s revealed to be the essence of corrupt authority. Whatever safety she offers always comes with a price and she believes that the means always justify the ends, if they’re her ends. Any goodness is a façade masking an obsessive and violent need for control

Deanna, a congresswoman before the outbreak, is the leader of Alexandria, a walled-off community that has been spared much engagement with walkers, for reasons that later become horrifyingly clear. Deanna is a caring, compassionate, insightful woman who is committed to her community.

She shares many of Rick’s best traits and they share an understanding and mutual respect from the beginning. But she encourages her community in the fantasy that they’re safe and resents any attempts by Rick to make them face reality. In the end, this is her community’s downfall when they’re utterly unprepared to face the horrors that inevitably finally catch up with them.

All these “leaders” had some of the necessary traits for great leadership:

They engage others in a shared meaning, even it is a deeply morally flawed shared meaning.

They all have distinctive and compelling voices. None of them are lacking in charisma. Deanna has a very strong sense of integrity and values and Dawn could be said to have adaptive capacity.

But none of them have all of the traits of great leadership. Only Rick does. For him, it’s not survival at all costs, it’s also about helping his people keep their humanity intact. Every other “leader” in this brutal world chooses one or the other, only Rick works to keep them in balance, however challenging that is.

But every leader should strive for continuous improvement. Rick’s default mode up to this point has been reactive to the constant dangers around him. And this makes a lot of sense; there have been a lot of dangers and he’s scared to let his guard down, both personally and for his people,. But at some point, he has to start being more forward looking and strategic.

What does life look like if and when the danger lessens? Life in Alexandria showed that Rick isn’t comfortable standing down. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the legend of Robin Hood. But I was also intrigued by the notion of what happens to Robin Hood and his Merry Men once good King Richard is back on the throne. Once you’ve spent too much time in reactive, hero mode, it’s often hard to adjust to peace and security.

Perhaps the answer is that Rick’s not the leaders for a future state of the group. Being the leader in crisis is not the same as being the leader for a stable growth. And that’s often recognized by the leader and the group around them. I once worked for the greatest guy in the world who acknowledged that he was great at starting companies, not so great at leading them once they grew to a certain size and stability. And it could be seen as the ultimate sign of great leadership to have that level of self-awareness and knowledge.

But if Rick is to be that future leader, he has to develop into someone who doesn’t just react to the disruption around him, but can lead his group through disruption to a more sustainable future.