Even More Leadership Lessons from The Walking Dead


Another season of AMC’s The Walking Dead is about to begin and with it brings more sleepless nights. TV and movies don’t typically permeate my psyche (despite my recent obsession with Happyish), but through excellent storytelling Rick and his band of hapless apocalyptic survivors provide weeks of angst. Its not the gore or the zombies, but the obsessive self-probing where I cannot help but ask myself what I would have done in similar situations. As you might expect, many of these questions involve ways we can be a better leader.

Before you read, please note that I will be discussing details up to and including the Season 6 season finale. If you aren’t caught up, I would question how you are spending your free time. I would also recommend my season four and five leadership lessons.

Suppress Your Overconfidence

Throughout season six, Rick displayed bolstering assurances that his past victories would ensure future success. He and his crew escaped from the farm; bested the Woodbury sadists, the Terminus cannibals, the Claimers biker gang, and the predatory Wolves; and have plowed through thousands of zombies. So when he found himself up against a new adversary, the Saviors, it was viewed as just another speedbump on the trek towards stability in Alexandria. Rick could not have been more wrong.

Rick and leaders like him suffer from a condition known as Irrational Self-Confidence Syndrome (ISC). The key symptom is unjustifiable overconfident. ISC can result from unhealthily high self-esteem, overcompensating for low self-esteem, or in Rick’s case, a track record of success.

Confidence is essential for a leader—it leads to decisiveness, higher social status, and the perceptions of enhanced social and task skills. Overconfidence, however, leads to poor decisions, overestimating chances of success, and underestimating adversity. It’s why Rick thought he could outsmart and overpower Negan’s Saviors, and accounts for almost every poor decision Merle, Shane, Gareth, and the Governor ever made. We’ll see if Negan falls into this camp.

Hype Must Have A Payoff

As great as season six was, it was also incredibly frustrating. First, we watched as Glen seemingly died in a zombie attack. We waited weeks for the verdict only to learn that he survived in the most unrealistic, impractical way.

Then, we endured through months of buildup on the arrival of the newest villain and the upcoming death of a major character. We eventually met Negan but were left with a “Who just died?” cliffhanger that blew up the internet with criticism.

I cannot wait to see the reaction to when we do the things we’re going to do at the end of this season. I think we will melt people’s minds.—David Alpert, The Walking Dead’s Executive Producer

As leaders, generating anticipation and excitement can be beneficial when rolling out new initiatives. It can also be catastrophic when the hype is disproportional to the product. Keep expectations in check or, even better, underpromise so you can overdeliver.

Look on the Sunnier Side

I’ve been watching The Walking Dead long enough to know that everything is not going to be okay. Sure, there are moments of hope, but they tend to be followed by horror and loss. That’s why I need a Morgan.

No character on TWD has experienced such drastic growth as Morgan. He went from doting father, to deranged paranoia, to zen master. His new outlook has led to a brighter, more hopeful view of mankind and may be leading Carol towards the same worldview. Thankfully, research shows we don’t need to face a zombie apocalypse to learn how to be more optimistic.

In the Journal of Positive Psychology, John Malouff and Nicola Schutte found that a few simple interventions can significantly increase an individual’s level of optimism. One effective method is known as The Best Possible Self Intervention where participants spend half an hour “imagining [themself] in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could…” Others methods include self-compassion training, mediation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and mindfulness training.

The good news is that becoming more optimistic is directly correlated with a longer, healthier life. It makes you a more influential leader and increases emotional intelligence. Unfortunately, dedicated TWD fans know that when characters become optimistic or enlightened, the show’s writers tend to kill them off. So practice this one at your own risk.

I’m not going into the season seven premiere with happy thoughts; someone is going to die and it is going to be a character we care about. I can only hope you learn from Rick and control your hubris when taking on your next Negan-like challenge. I hope you learn from TWD writers to mitigate unfulfillable buildup and surprise others with greatness, instead of talking about how great it is going to be. And I hope you can be the Eastman who converts your Morgans from unproductive cynics to engaged optimists. Good luck out there.

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