These past few weeks I’ve been in the grip of my worst TV serial addiction since the last season of Downton Abby. With the final episodes soon to air, I keep asking myself why a show with such a seedy plot as Breaking Bad would be so well reviewed and so terribly captivating for a wide audience, and I think the answer has a lot to do with leadership.
The story is about Walter White, a chemistry teacher who becomes a meth cook after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Initially he just wants to make enough money to take care of his medical bills and leave his family with a decent nest egg, but eventually, as he and his young partner Jesse (his former student) work their way into the depths of a major drug empire, it becomes something else altogether. Critics often comment on the enormous risk taken by the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, in venturing into this kind of territory and expecting it to have mass appeal.
What I find so interesting is the subverting of conventional wisdom about which characters we will like and which we’ll see as the bad guys. In the beginning, Walt is a frightened, mild-mannered high school teacher who simply wants to make sure his wife and two children are taken care of. Jesse, on the other hand, is an impudent, drug-addicted punk. If there is anyone we ought to empathize with, it’s Walt, who has the most plausible excuse to become a criminal. And yet by season five, we hate Walt and we love Jesse. Walt has become, in the words of Gilligan himself, “Scarface” — a scheming, murdering egomaniac who deceives everyone to get what he wants, including his wife and his partner. Jesse, on the other hand, has undergone a transformation. He’s kicked his meth habit, developed confidence, learned the science behind the job he’s doing, and begun to handle himself like a professional. But perhaps most importantly, we’ve lived through many emotional peaks and valleys with him as he falls in love, suffers a terrible grief, and develops a relationship with the young son of his next girlfriend. He is truly compassionate, and when innocent people suffer he cries. He loves and protects children, and he admits when he does something wrong. What distinguishes him from Walt is emotional intelligence. Walt might be a brilliant chemist and strategic planner, but the only emotions we ever see from him are anger and pride, and he’s not good at controlling either of them. And so it is Jesse we root for.
In leadership classes I always ask people to tell a story about the best leader they ever worked with, and then we list the attributes of that person. Most of them have to do with emotional intelligence and not with technical skills; the lists are always full of EQ-related qualities like honesty and empathy and integrity. And we love nothing better than the story of someone that struggles to be a better person in the face of adversity . So here’s why we can love a story about drug dealers: because even in the criminal world, we recognize the same leadership archetypes we find in our workplaces. There’s the manager we love to hate because he’s on a self-absorbed power trip, and the manager we love to love, because he is compassionate and caring, and leads courageously despite his own vulnerability.