Breaking Bad: classic example of poor leadership?

Breaking bad2

Was Walter White the classic example of really bad leadership?

In Breaking Bad, we watch high school chemistry teacher Walter White transform into a ruthless crystal meth kingpin after he gets a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Walter is complex, like all of us. A sympathetic, law-abiding man gets bad news and is desperate to provide for his family. Yet at the same time he exhibits a cold and calculating side as he builds a wildly successful enterprise - but his behaviour devastates those around him.

Three things make Walter a classic example of poor leadership.

  • First, Walter puts his own needs above the needs of others, and disregards ethical limits. He poisons a child to manipulate a rival. He is secretive and manipulative, lying to those closest to him and creating a culture of fear and mistrust.
  • Second, he treats colleagues and workers badly. His protégé Jesse is constantly belittled and abused, despite loyalty and hard work.
  • Finally, he lacks accountability, blames others for his mistakes and refuses to take responsibility for his actions.

How do these behaviours compare to bad leadership in the real world?

The Winsborough team have gathered detailed feedback on leaders via 360 surveys for over a decade, and our database contains evaluations of leaders from 30,000 of their peers, direct reports and managers.

In the spirit of Breaking Bad, we examined the ratings of the lowest rated 10% of leaders to look for common patterns of behaviour.

The bad news: There are nearly 600 Walter Whites in our files.

The poorer leaders in our survey got very low scores for self-awareness, learning from others and handling mistakes constructively. That is, they ignore their own shortcomings, fail to take feedback and don’t take accountability. These leaders are rude, rigid and righteous.

They also don’t pay attention to the needs of people around them. That is, they don’t coach or mentor, and they don’t energise, inspire or provide feedback.

Perhaps worst of all, they fail to create an environment of psychological safety. Ideas and innovation can only occur when people feel able to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas.

These are bald facts - to give a flavour of what bad leaders are like from those who work for them, we took a few verbatim comments from our surveys. These are all real.

  1. STOP questioning people as if you think we are dumb.
  2. [they] demands ideas from us in isolated meetings and then presents them as their own to bosses.
  3. There are racist comments and sexist comments all the time. It creates a very bad environment. None of us feels very safe.
  4. [they] lies when they doesn’t need to.
  5. [they] creates drama and tries to unsettle people.
  6. [Leader] needs to realise that their competitive drive with their own staff is destructive to teamwork. 

The moral of Walter White is that unenlightened self-interest makes for bad leadership. Organisations underestimate the corrosive effects of bad leadership and discount the hurt and pain that incompetent leaders inflict – never mind the financial costs.

Investing in getting the real story about your leaders – via a 360º survey - is the first step to building a great work culture.

Download our brochure now, or book a Winsborough 360 here   https://www.winsborough.co.nz/our-tools/leader-360  


Need more information? Contact the Winsborough Team:
winsborough.co.nz | 0800 222 061 | support@winsborough.co.nz