“Did you watch it?”
You could hear that question in Starbucks, in grocery lines, bars, at the water fountain, everywhere in the weeks leading up to the finale of Breaking Bad. Even those few people who
hadn’t been watching what many have called “the best TV Drama ever” found themselves compelled to download and binge watch from the beginning!
What was the secret to Breaking Bad’s enormous success?
It wasn’t just the great writing, although the writing for Breaking Bad was nothing short of brilliant. Vince Gillian and his team created a totally compelling protagonist in Walter White.
It wasn’t just the acting. Although it was outstanding, there have been outstanding actors on other shows.
So what was it? What was it that drew us to Walter and his journey?
Walter White came into our lives as a man we originally felt kind of sorry for. He was underpaid, pushed around, certainly undervalued and on top of all that, he had been given a tragic diagnosis. He was a classic underdog. We watched Walter transform from a nerdy, spineless, struggling school teacher whose family was everything into a villainous yet charismatic genius also known as Heisenberg.
There is, of course, so much we can go into when it comes to Breaking Bad. However, a few key features about Walter White’s story provide us a compelling lesson about Leadership. Walter’s life is a classic illustration of how old school dictatorial and self-destructive leadership can have a meteoric rise followed by a catastrophic decline.
Walter’s impetus for change comes many years into his mediocre life; he finds out his wife is pregnant with their second child, and he has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. He is faced with not only battling a potentially fatal disease, but also the possibility of leaving his family penniless in the process.
Like Walter White, many of the most successful entrepreneurs find that their own impetus for change came out of pain or inspiration, and oftentimes it is some personal or situational pain that generates the needed inspiration. However, as we see with Walter, the desire to make more money and even create a better life alone was not, and most often, is not enough. It’s only through the magical chemistry of desperation and inspiration that Walter discovers his savant-like skills.
As we continued to be drawn into the story, we saw that Walter began to create two worlds: the world of home and family and the world of “business.” Moreover, the rules for one world were not allowed to spill over to the other world.
This is so often the case with the driven leader; the person they are at home and the person they are in the business world barely resemble each other. What’s worse is they come to believe that this is the way it has to be. The result of this division is that as a leader the incongruences become glaring and the leader ends up neither trusting or being trusted, and loyalties quickly fall away.
Throughout the Breaking Bad series, we saw Walter White learn to justify any and all behavior by saying to himself or others that he was doing it for his family. Nonetheless, what he was doing “for his family” would ultimately destroy the very family he claimed to so deeply care about.
As leaders in any capacity, be it community, religious, business or any other kind, we all have our “mechanism of justification,” a way to put the things that matter most on the back burner; a way to tell ourselves that the end justifies the means.
But the question I put to you as a leader is a simple one: Does it? Does the end really justify the means?
In the final episode of the series, Walter White is briefly reunited with his wife, Skyler. He says, “Skyler, all the things that I did, you need to understand…” At which point she cuts him off and say, “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family…” Walter then interrupts her and says, “I did it for me! I liked it, I was good at it, and I was…alive!
It is a brutally honest confession. Walter used his family as an excuse, but in the end he did everything he did because he liked it and was good at it. He did it for himself.
So I ask you, my leader friend, to be really honest with yourself.
Why do you really do “it”? (whatever it is for you).
I promise you, it’s very unlikely that you are actually doing it for the reasons you tell both yourself and others.
So I ask again, Why do you really do it?
Let Me Remind you: Great Leaders have Transparency...particularly with themselves.
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