Monday, March 10, 2014

Leadership lessons from Breaking Bad

I missed Breaking Bad when it originally aired, but I caught up on the whole series recently via Netflix. If you haven't seen the show, Breaking Bad is a wonderful program about an educator (Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston) who goes back to professional practice in chemistry, and exhibits particular talent in his field. White partners up with a former student (Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul) and provides Jesse with remedial chemistry lessons in a sort of mentor relationship. They go into business together, and—without giving anything away—they encounter some "challenges" along the way. They also cook meth. And I mean a lot of meth.

Aside from the chemistry lessons, Breaking Bad provides leadership lessons, if you look for them. I've chosen five of my favorite lessons.

1. Partner with others; be part of a team

You can't go it alone. It's important when starting any new venture to have a partner, someone who will watch your back and help you out. And that's true whether you're working on an IT project, coordinating a campus-wide effort, or cooking a batch of meth in a dilapidated RV in the deserts of New Mexico.

While it's important to partner with someone who works well with you, be mindful that you select someone who brings a fresh perspective. If your partner carries the same opinions that you do, you'll fail to identify issues before they become problems, and you'll miss valuable opportunities.

2. Make wise hiring decisions

A colleague once related to me that hiring new people onto a team is a half-million dollar decision, and you need to treat it as such. Think of it this way: in higher ed and in industry, expect to spend about $100,000 per IT professional per year in salary and fringe (in most metro areas). Hire the wrong person, and IT managers may spend several years trying to "fix" the person they hired before deciding to end the relationship. And in the meantime, your team will experience "collateral damage" as more experienced members try to repair mistakes caused by the problem person.

Be like Gus. Whether he's hiring a fry cook in his fast-food restaurant or a partner in a new business venture, he builds a solid understanding of who he's dealing with. Large or small, Gus is careful to hire only the right people for his team.

3. Be methodical in what you do

Projects go more smoothly if everyone knows their part and what to expect. Take care to plan out your vision and clarify your team's role in executing that vision. Apply proper methodology to your project planning, such as detailed effort work plans or simple Gantt charts, to ensure a smooth delivery. Map out any obstacles in your way and get people together to identify how to work around them.

But leave some flexibility in your planning. There is such a thing as becoming too focused. Avoid becoming overly attached to an idea so that it prevents you from seeing other possibilities and alternative outcomes.

4. Commit to your decisions

When you make a decision or decide on a course of action, there shouldn't be any doubt that it's the right thing to do. Balance your options, and weigh the benefits against the risks. And when you move forward, put all your energy into it. If you hold back, you aren't really committed.

Look at Hector. When Walter approached him with an opportunity, no one could argue he didn't commit himself to the deal. He evaluated the options, and was all in. Be like Hector. Ring the bell of success.

5. Don't be afraid to take initiative

When opportunity knocks, will you be ready? We need to remain flexible to leverage new avenues of success. Leaders need to recognize the path to progress even in the face of challenges. Don't be afraid to take the initiative, and work around obstacles. With a little creativity, you just might discover new ways to achieve your objectives.

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