More Leadership Lessons from The Walking Dead


Another mid-season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead and, as usual, we are left with more questions than ever. Can Glenn save Maggie? Will Rick and his band of gut-soaked companions make it through the sea of undead? And someone get that kid to stop calling for his mother?

This zombie apocalyptic soap opera has united people around ideas and themes that are commonplace in the workplace. Maybe not the flesh-eating practices, but is the show compelling because of the monsters or because we can relate to the aspects of the story centered around leadership and teams? Let’s once again delve into The Walking Dead and find out.

Before you read, please note that I will be discussing details up to and including the Season 6 mid-season episode. If you aren’t caught up, I encourage you to get with it. Great TV isn’t going to watch itself.

Do You Carry Yourself Like a Leader?

Since the beginning of The Walking Dead, Rick has struggled to determine what type of leader he’d like to be. He’s tried consensus, a Governor-like authoritative stance, and even laissez-faire when he “retired” from leadership at the prison to be a farmer. Through it all, he does not express a lack of confidence.

Rick knows the public face of leadership, right? He’s seen what happens when he expresses his doubts to a broad audience. It doesn’t engender smart intelligent debate, it just sparks dissent. So sometimes the best face to put forward is one of absolute confidence. And he’s living that lesson and living that publicly because when he doesn’t, it just creates tension and problems.—David Alpert, producer on The Walking Dead

As a study from the Center for Talent Innovation found, the ability to project gravitas—confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness—is a core characteristic to being perceived as the leader. Combined with speaking skills and assertiveness, Rick and all of us can maintain an executive presence in even the most hostile of circumstances.

Are You Rebellious Enough?

Ron is a problem. He wants revenge for his father being killed, for his girlfriend being taken away, and for being born an insecure punk. He’s in immediate danger with the house under siege by walkers and all Ron can think about is killing Carl. Does this rebelliousness make him a liability or is it an indicator of future success?

In a recent study, researchers found that rule-breaking was the best predictor of which students ended up earning higher incomes. These individuals were more willing to stand up for themselves and were more demanding during negotiations. The caveat, however, is that a rebellious individual must be able to back up their insubordinance with expertise and skills…factors in which Ron is sorely lacking.

Have You Picked a Successor?

Rick may be the core of the show, but Deanna has been the model leader. A former senator and the governess of Alexandria, Deanna exhibited composure and a level-headed approach that earned the respect of those living in her safe haven. Unfortunately for Deanna, there’s no coming back from a zombie bite. Fortunately for us, she departed with a solid succession plan.

Unlike more than half of companies today that, according to new research, cannot name a successor to their CEO and 40% who have “zero viable internal candidates,” Deanna has been molding two people to take the reigns.

What I wrote to Maggie is that this is her chance to step up to the plate, to become me as much as she can in terms of her belief of due process of law… She’s the one who has the balanced path and the balanced abilities to become the leader of state, and not to forget that. So between her and Michonne I have a Plan A and a Plan B.—Tovah Feldshuh (Deanna)

To prepare her successors, Deanna first chose people which whom she saw attributes and abilities that complimented and exceeded her own. She then engrained her principles for a functional zombie-infiltrated civilization. Finally, Deanna gave her detailed plans to Michonne and explained how she envisioned the future. Each step was selfless and showed her trust in those she deemed as future leaders.

As The Walking Dead has shown time and again, we are not all going to make it. This is not pessimistic; it is reality. If you want to fight, you’ll have a better chance to survive. If you are ethical, you’ll avoid turning into the enemy. And if you can adapt, you’ll have the flexibility to change course when needed. Throw in a little luck (a la Glenn and the dumpster), and you’re on your way towards higher ground.

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