What I Learned From Walter White

There is one vital “skill” that rises above all others for leader success:  self-awareness.  And the one thing that appears to be most lacking is, as you might guess:  self-awareness!  In this article I urge you to increase your knowledge of the impact you have on others because whether you know it or not, your employees probably have a different view of you than you have of yourself. 

Kenny is a success story, but I had my doubts in the beginning.  He was referred to me for coaching last year by his boss and he argued that only one thing mattered:  getting the job done!

“You’ll see, he’s one of the most goal-driven individuals I’ve ever met,” said the manager.  “But he’s like a runaway elephant on the streets:  everybody’s just getting out of his way before they get trampled.  Please understand you need to have a clear picture before you work with him.  His intentions are very good, as least I think they are.  But he’s destroying everyone in his path.”

“Why do you keep him,” I asked, already having a good idea of the answer I was going to get.

“Because he’s very simply the smartest guy in this position I’ve ever seen.  Nobody knows this job like he does.  He would be near impossible to replace.”

If you are thinking that my challenge suddenly got larger, you would be right.  The referring manager was just as much a part of this problem and, as many of you already know, this is often the case.  But a discussion of “who is the real problem” is another newsletter for another time.

Smart must have a limited definition, I thought as I hung up the phone.  Or else it is in short supply on the shelves.  And as I pondered my possible approach, Walter White (yes, that Walter from Breaking Bad) came clearly into view.  Walter was smart too and he was driven much like this supervisor with whom I was about to work.  Walter had one goal and one goal only.  He was driven to make money.  Only those relationships that could benefit him to this end were of use to him, and anyone who got in his way was either ridiculed or dispatched.  Those on the periphery suffered at Walter’s hands also.

If his boss was correct and my assumptions were accurate, supervisors like this fellow are typically focused only on the bottom line and often have very little awareness of the necessity of skills and traits like stress tolerance, empathy, flexibility, optimism, or impulse control.  Others view them as dominant, demanding, blunt, and argumentative, and those are often their most positive characteristics.  Unfortunately that hallowed trait of achievement is the most valued trait in the room, but even that has a limit if good people continue to leave.

As I continued to think about my approach, I remembered that the sheer number of blogs over the five seasons of Breaking Bad unofficially broke all records of fan involvement through social media.  A large portion of the audience remained sympathetic to Walter but a much larger portion became increasingly appalled over his continual plea that it was all for the family.   As though Walter was a real person, one blogger wrote:   “It is easy for us to see the tragic ending that is to come for Walter and all those who associate with him.  Why can’t he see it?  Is he blinded by his ambition?”   

In the end Walter achieved his goal and amassed a large sum of money, but he lost all of his relationships including the love of his family.  The beginning of his self-destruction became clear when Walter said the following:  “Jesse, you asked me if I’m in the meth business or the money business.  Neither.  I’m in the empire business.”

In a follow-up conversation prior to meeting with my client, I asked the boss if I had the authority to tell him that his job is in jeopardy unless he changes.  “If he’s never received that feedback, it is only fair.  Besides, it may be the one thing that will get his attention,” I said.  And with that permission, I chose to be respectful, yet blunt and it made all the difference.

Over the next several weeks he took a battery of assessment tools and we covered how his strengths were also his downfall and that, in the end, unless he was careful, he, like Walter White, was going to get the very thing he was most afraid of:  failure.  And it was going to happen because he was neither well respected nor well liked.  “And that will ultimately be your demise my friend.”

Learn to know yourself.  It is a lifelong pursuit and undoubtedly the most important objective.  Understand that the pursuit of goals is obviously important because, very simply, goals funnel an organization’s activities toward a commonality.  But who you are and how you go about orchestrating this pursuit makes all the difference in whether you will have a unified and encouraged staff or whether you will, like Walter White, damage those with whom you come in contact.

An interesting read on this topic:

  • First Things First by Covey, Merrill, & Merrill
  • The Carrot Principle: How the Best Managers Use Recognition to Engage Their People, Retain Talent, and Accelerate Performance by Gostick and Elton

2 Toxic Habits That Can Drain Trust And Productivity Out Of Your Workplace

Wanted:  Plumber with experience who knows which way (fill in the blank) runs and who can communicate same to leaders who are absolutely convinced they are not the purveyors of  (fill in the blank)!!

To a large degree, plumbers unclog pipes and drains, right!  And while vitally important, particularly under certain circumstances, it’s not too terribly complex.  If only leadership issues could be fixed as readily with a plunger!  I would open a specialty store.

Like plumbing, the symptoms that appear in organizations are often caused elsewhere.  Follow the trail and arrive at the source of the problem.  And while it is too simplistic to say all problems start at the top, there are certainly enough to warrant taking a look at some of the most common toxic leadership habits that impact both people and processes down the line.

#1  Resisting Personal Growth 

Examine the work history of many leaders and you’ll uncover hard-driving, responsible people who have always been adept at accomplishing tasks.  This ability to get things done—and done correctly—triggers the higher ups to fix their radars on newly labeled Wonder Women/Supermen and target them for promotions.  As these wonderkinds go higher up the ladder, they get increasingly  busier simply because more stuff of a big picture nature comes across their desk requiring attention.  But something is suddenly different now than it was when they were low on the totem pole. No longer is the individual capable of doing it all with her/his own two hands.  Delegation is the order of the day.  And along with delegation comes follow-up and the ability to hold others accountable.  The world of the leader is no longer small in scope, but bigger in picture and possessing the ability to think in terms of possibilities and shaping the future is a necessary skill.   This is where the trouble begins because what it took to help you get there is not what it will take to get you the rest of the way.  The focused, driven, self-reliant employee—who resists the growth necessary for success at higher levels—is often viewed as an isolated, self-centered, dominating leader.

What should you do?

There are three things that can help you to grow and have success at the next level.  First, uncover whether previous leaders were successfu.  If not, why not?  What mistakes did they make?  What traits did they possess that turned people off.  Perhaps they were too nice and tried to please everyone.  Perhaps they failed to hold others accountable.  Perhaps they were too aloof and saw no value in simple acts of encouragement and recognition.

Secondly, take a couple of personality or behavioral assessments to get an idea of what your strengths are and in which areas you may need to maintain vigilance.

Thirdly, get a good read on the personality characteristics of your team, department or organization.  This will determine, more than anything else, what approach you should take.  If your team is primarily composed of sensitive, risk-averse, accommodating type people, you will need to match that style in your leadership.  If you have the opposite with bottom-line, assertive, demanding individuals, you will need to take on a much more assertive stance.

#2  Avoiding Tough Conversations

Being too nice and avoiding tough conversations is one of the most detrimental leadership qualities one can have.  When leaders say “yes” to differing sides of an issue the invariable result is damaged trust and the diminished delivery of the product or service.  Similarly, when leaders fail to instill a sense of accountability, the result is often chaos and a lack of productivity.  Approximately four years ago I was fortunate enough to get a call from the owner of a manufacturing plant.  A self-described inventor, the owner wanted to devote his time to future products instead of the day-to-day operations of the plant.  For that purpose, he selected a loyal and disciplined individual and gave him the title of VP.  Within a year, manufacturing quotas and on-time deliveries were circling the toilet drain and it didn’t take a master plumber to figure out why.  While loyal and disciplined accurately described this individual, he was also one of the most conflict-averse individuals I’ve ever met.  He told me he stayed awake most nights worrying about whether he had recently upset someone.  When I asked him about setting goals and objectives toward his improvement, he asked if I would lobby the owner to simply give him his old job back.  “I just can’t deal with knowing that no matter what I do, someone is always going to be angry with me,” he said as tears came to his eyes.   He even shared that this was an issue between him and his wife and that he was now aware of just how debilitated he was.  After six months of regular coaching meetings, he shared that he felt more confident and had more of a sense of being in control of his life.

While this example may be a bit extreme, conflict-averse people think the situation will magically resolve itself and that the pain of having a difficult conversation is greater than the pain of not having it. As a result, we employ denial, avoidance, resistance, rationalization or plain ole blame as a way to place responsibility on the other person.  Suffice it to say that the end result is that the problem never diminishes and, in fact, gets worse—especially as it relates to relationships.

What should you do?

1. Seek coaching or counseling and begin tackling your fears.  The fear of conflict can have some deep-seated roots sometimes that impact all areas of life.

2. Get the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High.” This is an excellent source with practical hints for how to say the tough stuff and do so in such a way that relationships with others are maintained.