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

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