Published on February 11, 2014

BLOG: The Walking Dead: A lesson in leadership

Schertz

AKRON (Feb. 11, 2014) — I'm an enormous fan of anything zombie-related, and it's no secret to those who know me that AMC Network Entertainment's The Walking Dead ranks high on that list.

The show returned from its mid-season break this past Sunday after a two-month hiatus. Just in time, too. Waiting for it to come back has been eating away at my patience like—well—like a zombie eating away at a face.

A little bit of background info for those who don't follow the series: The Walking Dead, a television horror/drama based on Robert Kirkman's graphic novel series by the same name, takes place in a world where an unknown virus has decimated humanity, turning most of the population into zombies.

The series follows main protagonist Rick Grimes as he leads—sometimes haphazardly—a group of other survivors in their fight to stay alive.

While I'm every bit a fan as the next guy of the weekly limb munching and fermented zombie head squishing, what really draws me back for each episode is the human element. In truth, the show's zombies often are an afterthought. They remain a looming threat but, ultimately, are an occasional deadly distraction in a show that's really about people, the relationships they form and how they work together to survive.

You could say there are some parallels to running a business, with the continuous struggle to adapt and remain profitable in an ever-changing environment. (The big difference being that in the zombie apocalypse, screwing up means the world quite literally will "eat you alive.")

One commonality is the issue of trust. Trust is a pervading theme in The Walking Dead, and it's also a necessary component of good leadership in the real world.

A familiar topic in my discussions with tire shop owners is that one of the biggest keys to success is building trust with customers. Less common are discussions about building trust with employees, but it is equally important.

Business owners rely on the people around them to help keep their businesses afloat, just as the survivors in the TV show rely on each other to avoid becoming dinner. In either scenario, the key to survival is in developing strong relationships with other people, and one of the biggest keys to doing that is establishing trust.

In a 2012 article for Forbes magazine, business strategist and author David Horsager, said that leaders cannot become "great" leaders without first establishing trust.

"You can have a compelling vision, rock-solid strategy, excellent communication skills, innovative insight and a skilled team, but if people don't trust you, you will never get the results you want," he writes, adding that mistrust only serves to foster skepticism and frustration among workers, while also negatively impacting productivity.

In the article, Mr. Horsager cites eight "Cs" for building and maintaining trust: clarity, compassion, character, contribution, competency, connection, commitment and consistency. Of the leaders depicted in The Walking Dead, Rick seems to most closely encompass these traits.

Members of his group began looking to him early on as a leader, a title he didn't ask for but one that found him anyway. He proves to be a man of integrity, honest and forthcoming with the other characters. He consistently strives to do the right thing in a world where morality has taken a back seat to survival, and he values the other members of the group, seeking out their opinions and involving them in major decisions.

Rick is not a perfect leader by any stretch. Anyone who watches the show knows he's had his share of failings, most notably a history of indecisiveness and flip-flopping on decisions in season two. But his honorable nature and clear commitment to the well-being of the group have kept him in high standing.

Conversely, less trustworthy leaders—namely the Governor, the head of a rival faction introduced in season three—are not as successful.

Dave Bowman, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based human resources consulting firm TTG Consultants, wrote an article on TTG's website citing five ways to lose trust in the workplace. Among these are acting and speaking inconsistently; seeking personal gain over shared benefits; withholding information; dishonesty; and being unwilling to consider other points of view.

The Governor is an embodiment of all the things a business owner shouldn't do. He lies to his group frequently, hides immoral activities that would do some serious damage to his reputation and makes promises without the intent to follow through. By way of his egocentric style of leadership, the Governor ultimately thwarts his own goals in the series.

His self-serving nature is most blatant in the continuous push to overtake Rick's group, along with the former prison in which they reside. Despite assertions from Rick that the two groups can coexist peacefully—and similar sentiment from some members of the Governor's own group—the Governor clings to his plan like a zombie clinging to a human foot it recently detached.

After a handful of defections and a failed attack on the prison, most of the Governor's remaining group shows signs that it has lost faith in his ability to lead. He reacts by killing several of them and later launches another takeover attempt with a different group. That group is wiped out in the process, and in the end the Governor is shot by one of his own people.

While there's generally less biting and gunfire involved in the real world, mistrust of leadership can still become crippling for a business. According to Mr. Horsager, one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is assuming that trust simply comes with the title.

Trust, however, is something that must be earned, he says, and leaders are responsible for building and maintaining it. If you don't, you might find yourself—and perhaps your business—on the path toward becoming a shambling, groaning shadow of your former self.

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Tire Business Reporter William Schertz is hungry for your comments on this blog. Email him your comments at wschertz@crain.com.

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