Monday, December 12, 2016

Leadership lessons from unusual places: Breaking Bad

I wanted to share another set of leadership lessons from my presentation at the Government IT Symposium.

I like to find leadership lessons from a variety of places. I think it's more interesting to look for leadership lessons in unusual places. If you look for leadership lessons from expected places, it's boring. If someone came you to you and said "It just watched that movie about Steve Jobs, and I learned that to lead a technology company you need to have passion and be driven to innovate," then you would reply "Of course, that's the point of the movie." That's boring. Instead, I like to look for leadership lessons in unusual places.

Let's take the show Breaking Bad. It was a very popular show, and if you haven't seen it, I recommend you do. In brief, the show is about an instructor who leaves academia, meets a former student, and gives remedial chemistry lessons to him while they entrepreneurially create a small business which they then grow. I think that's a fair description of the show.

And if you've seen the show, I hope that helps you to look at it from a fresh perspective. That will help in finding leadership lessons.

Let's examine a few key characters from the show:
  1. Walter
  2. Gus
  3. Hank
  4. Hector

While the show has a lot of characters, these four exhibit some great leadership traits.
When Walter leaves academia, what's the first thing he does? He teams up with Jessie. Walt knew he couldn't go it alone. Sure, Walt had the technical background they needed, but Jessie had already established several relationships that they would need to bring their product to market. Everyone needs to be part of a team.

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.
The photo is from the first time that Gus meets Walter. It's a key moment in the show. And what can you say about how Gus approached Walter? I think you'll agree that Gus was very careful. Gus wanted to be sure Walter was someone he could work with, and that Walter wanted to work with him.

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.
Throughout the series, Hank is trying to catch bad guys. The photo shows Hank in his "war room" where he mapped out connections in an effort to identify the ringleader of an underground group. One thing you can say about Hank is he was meticulous in his planning. He examined details closely. And this paid off for him later, when he finally connected the dots to make a great discovery.

Take a lesson from Hank. 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.
I think we can all agree that Hector was a determined man. He carefully weighed his decisions, and having decided on a direction, he committed himself. I selected this photo of Hector because it shows him while he is making one of these important decisions. Walter comes to Hector with a proposal, and asks for Hector's help in getting out of trouble. Walter doesn't have a prior relationship with Hector, but he is persuasive nonetheless. Hector considers the offer, and is "all in." Because of Hector's commitment to the agreement, the season ends with a bang.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation. You are a very animated and gifted speaker. The presentation was engaging, thought provoking and easy to follow along with. I've already started to look at television shows and movies very differently. Thank you for sharing this with us!


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