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As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

360 degrees of Don Draper

Q: In the hit TV show "Mad Men," which ended its season Sunday, Don Draper becomes the de facto leader of the fictional ad agency, despite his cool detachment, his brusque manner and his brutal honesty. He follows the old adage that it is better to be feared and respected than liked, but he's also fiercely loyal to people who do good work. Does Don Draper pass the leadership test?

The following responses come from six of the fellows that make up Coro San Francisco's 2011 class.

On top of the above characteristics stated by the question, Don has a stubborn proclivity towards sticking with strategies and approaches that have proven effective in the past. Although that serves to elevate his position in the short term, it places him in a precarious position of being out of touch with the changing landscape and inhibits his ability to cultivate innovation. These characteristics hinder his ability to have a vision that is grounded in reality and to adapt to its changing conditions. Sure, assertiveness and strong convictions are important; but if not balanced with the aforementioned qualities, then one falls short of being an effective leader.

The key to all of this is a willingness to adapt. We are in an era where organizations and key leaders from around the world are being forced to change traditional paradigms. The economic downturn is partly to blame, but changing demographics, increased global interdependency, and innovations in information technology have also played a part in this change. For example, the newspaper industry--once perceived to be an impervious institution--is seeing this now. The advent of the Internet, along with social media, has placed the operating model of the newspaper industry and journalism in peril. Although previous approaches proved effective and profitable, they did not keep up with the changes outside of the industry.

There are moments in Mad Men where Don represents the reliable, proven-effective status quo. In earlier seasons, Don was reluctant to hire younger talent, despite the drastic social change occurring due to the rise of counter culture. This reluctance showed a lack of vision and desire to foster innovation in order to preserve a reliable model of the past. Sure, his insights and talents provided increased revenues to his firm, but possessing such brilliance cannot alone be characterized as good leadership unless it is complimented with an open willingness to adapt. -Eric Sanabria

I like Don Draper. And I know you like him too. Despite his brusque manner, he is smart, witty, charming and ultimately the perfect leader for the team of Mad Men.

In actuality, brusque and brutal honesty is exactly what we have seen flaunted on the national scene. When the likes of Washington DC's Michelle Rhee yell from their pulpits, things change, stuff happens and all is made well. In fact, the new movie Waiting For Superman has already touted Rhee as the savior of American education. Her manner, similar to Don's in Mad Men, quickly brushes off dissenting opinions and stands firmly by her decision because it is, "the best for DC's children."

The problem, though, is that Don does not have all of the right answers. When Don makes a decision on the company's behalf, he takes decision-making responsibility away from the other partners and makes the company, effectively, "Draper, Draper and Draper."

In a company, loss of ownership leads only to hurt feelings and lingering resentment. But when public leaders act the same way, the consequences are much more severe. Rhee doesn't have all of the answers, and Rhee is the fiduciary of a public institution, not a private corporation. Her decisions, unlike Don's, have led to a public (her partners) that no longer feels in control of or responsible for the government's choices. This in turn makes us feel that we have the right to complain about decisions, even if we never took interest in government in the past.

Don made his company great. The likes of Don in public service, though, are making the government less public, instilling in us a false sense of hope in a messianic leader and ultimately setting us up for inevitable disappointment. -Daniel Cheung

In order for an individual to pass the "leadership test," it is necessary to be an effective leader; and being feared or liked does not directly correlate with successful leadership without the ability to produce.

The characteristics of Don Draper having a "cool detachment" or a "brutal honesty" are not the essential components to the effectiveness of his leadership. Instead it is his ability to produce for his company that provides the foundation for his success.
For example, think of a successful football coach. In order to train his athletes to be disciplined, the coach instills fear--whether it be fear of punishment or fear of public embarrassment. A missed tackle may result in running sprints or being yelled at in front of teammates. At the same time this coach is likable because he cultivates team camaraderie and gives personal feedback to athletes. However, if a coach does not know the plays, his credibility is lost. This is similar to Don Draper's role in his company. The decisions that he makes are beneficial to the company because of his knowledge of advertising and his skill in spotting the talent in others. His personality plays an important role but one that is subsidiary to his success as a leader.

In spite of this, his complex relationships with the individuals he comes into contact with will continue to affect the quality of his leadership. -Ikenna Acholonu

While Don Draper can elicit short-term results from his team, his approach may not advance the long-term success of his firm.

The distant and unapproachable leader is respected at first, but that respect can deteriorate into resentment and distrust. It is not that cool detachment, a brusque manner or brutal honesty indicates an ineffective leadership style. A good leader is not necessarily warmly affectionate, easygoing and tactful. The real problem with Don's leadership is that it can stymie collaboration. When people so fear a leader that they are afraid to voice their ideas, question his decisions or even speak up in meetings, the final product suffers. The firm suffers as well: internal tensions arise between those who feel mutual loyalty with the leader and those who feel alienated by him. Eventually, talented individuals will seek a job elsewhere.

One of the primary skills of an effective leader is fostering an environment where people communicate openly, trust each other and work as a cohesive unit. This can be done coolly, brusquely, and honestly--but whether Don Draper will manage to do so remains to be seen. -Ashley Meyers

Truly effective leadership requires the ability to motivate those you work with to achieve their fullest potential. It is the keen awareness of what drives individuals to push themselves the extra mile-as well as what hinders that drive-that produces successful outcomes. Quite obviously, this is no easy task. An emotion like fear may motivate one person while paralyzing another. A leader's responsibility is to tap into ideas and emotions that create an environment in which all individuals feel sufficiently driven to achieve given goals.

Don Draper's Machiavellian leadership style can certainly claim many successes in the show. His consistently brutal criticism motivated Draper's subordinates on various occasions to work late nights in order to seek his approval. His unbiased appreciation for quality work provided Peggy the opportunity to leave her secretary's desk and earn a position as a copywriter. However, Draper's emotional detachment and unapologetic attitude also produced some costs in his professional life. During Season 4, he failed to understand the emotional toll his detachment had on one of his secretaries after having a sexual encounter with her, prompting her to erupt at work and quit, leaving Draper with a less-than-stellar replacement.

In Draper's case, he has surrounded himself with individuals, for the most part, that respond well to his rigid leadership style. However, many leaders do not always have that luxury. It is in those cases that understanding what motivates individuals and adapting is of utmost importance. -Amir Badat

As I watched the season finale of Mad Men and thought about Don Draper, the leader, it dawned on me that leadership transcends time. Don passes the leadership test in the 1960s, and I think he would still pass today (although having your fourth whiskey before 10am might not fly in the modern office). No matter the time period Don shares many qualities with effective leaders of today and yesteryear.

In an industry where you have to at least appear to be the most innovative person on Madison Avenue, Don is truly innovative; not just in his creative work but also in how he leads. For example, in the beginning of the show Don makes Peggy Olson a copywriter, for no other reason than the fact that she is extremely talented. This seems obvious now, but in a time and a business ruled by men, Don sees outside the socially constructed system of the ultimate boys club. Fast forward to present day and Peggy is one of the few things saving the company.

Another fantastic Don Draper leadership characteristic is that Don gets things done. I think one of the most disappointing things about realities of our current political climate is that getting anything done is such a huge battle that any thoughts of innovating our many antiquated and failing systems seems out of the realm of possibility. In the penultimate episode Don recognizes that his firm will not survive chasing big tobacco. Rather than quietly moving on, Don renounces big tobacco--not only shifting the dynamics of his own firm but also positioning it for new lines of business.

I think Don's greatest trait as a leader is his ability to manifest loyalty. Granted that in a TV show you cannot just have main characters quitting, but Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell and company stick with him. Even Don's ex-wife, Betty Draper, who shows nothing but distaste for Don, is willing to lie to protect Don's identity.

What makes Mad Men so brilliant is that we constantly get to see Don's personal flaws (of which there are many). He is down right dislikable for a multitude of moral reasons. But in the end, I am impressed by the way he leads the firm. Cheers to Don. -Galen Wilson

By Coro Fellows

 |  October 18, 2010; 5:33 PM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , Pop culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: In both drama and leadership, character is action | Next: Respect, not fear, rules the roost


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You can definitely tell that the posts were written by those interested in public service leadership due to the nature of their responses. However, I believe the question was whether Don Draper pasts the "leadership test" in general.

I would have been interested to hear the fellows elaborate more on the fact that different environments attract and demand different styles of leadership. And the "lofty" vision that the majority of the fellows have instilled as the best form of leadership--one that creates conducive and inclusive work environments-- may not prove to be true in all situations. Actually, I don't believe simply making people feel good makes them perform any better. Respect is an important factor and it tends to be much more difficult to garner respect through a "lets all hold hands" approach.

Nonetheless, I think Amir Badat made some solid points. Finding what motivates people in your field of work and adapting is a great recommendation for any leader.

In the future, some of the posts could have made their points in a much more succinct manner. Longer is not always better!

Posted by: skepticLA | October 23, 2010 7:10 PM
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To potentially laud a leadership style based on what the questioners frame as the "old adage that it is better to be feared and respected than liked" and I see as a modification of the quote "let them hate me as long as they fear me" most often attributed to the roman emperor Caligula is demoralizing. Here is an example of another leader who was feared and respected but certainly not popular. Caligula, it should be noted, was also known for his method of killing dissenters over the course of many days and instructing his executioners to make sure his victims felt that they were dying.

A leader who needs to use fear to inspire respect has already failed in her or his mission. Individuals who hold formal power and exert that power in a manner that inspires fear also tend to inspire resentment in those below them in the hierarchy. Caligula's story also aids in illustrating my point in that he was stabbed to death by members of his own private guard less than four years into his reign.

I agree, in part, with Ikenna that Draper's ability to "produce for the company" is a large portion of the foundation of his success I side more with Ashley who takes a longitudinal approach to assessing success. One can cause an individual to act in a desired manner over a short term using fear as the major point of leverage however my definition of leadership encompasses sustained loyalty. This is one thing that fear is unable to produce.

Posted by: 1Stoic | October 21, 2010 2:26 PM
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Here's some "brusque and brutal honesty": considering the multitude of world changing events going on these days, I think the Coro Fellows' (and probably everyone else's) time and effort could be put to better use than discussing some frivolous TV show.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | October 21, 2010 1:27 AM
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Daniel's analysis of Don Draper neglects a crucial critique: who cares? Sure Don Draper acts like he's right all the time, and clearly he demonstrably isn't. And yes that will alienate some people who will then fell vindicated in complaining. But don't we need people who will stake a claim and say proudly what they think is right? The world is an ugly place, and monsters exist in it. Nietzche's Zarathustra puts the logic neatly: "To me justice speaks thusly: man is not created equal." Such positions don't need to calm consideration of complaints. They need to be confronted, and that is why we need Don Draper

Posted by: jason_of_the_argonauts | October 21, 2010 1:13 AM
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To Daniel Cheung:
Rhee is often criticized for failing to gain enough trust from the teachers themselves. Can Rhee also be seen as trying to fill this "messianic" role, and what might she be able to learn from Draper? In a strongly partisan climate, how can a leader appeal to different sides and still craft an effective plan?

Posted by: TTR1 | October 20, 2010 10:13 PM
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Comment for Daniel Cheung:

Rhee may have made changes in DC that other districts can learn from, but she is criticized for not gaining the trust of enough teachers. How can leaders gain more support from opposing sides in such a partisan climate? Did Rhee try to play that "messianic" role, and could she have learned something from Draper's style?

Posted by: TTR1 | October 20, 2010 10:04 PM
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Leadership is not simply the act of heading an organization or sitting in the corner office; it is a function of an individuals ability to inspire action in those that work with them. Don Draper is a leader because he has been able to leverage loyalty and fear into creative outputs by his co-workers. It is these personal relationships, motivated by either fear or love (or the realistic gray area in between), that enable leadership.

Posted by: emg1011 | October 20, 2010 10:00 PM
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While all the respondents made good points, I am a bit surprised that only one made any reference (though only superficially) to the source of the 'old adage' that sits at the heart of this question, especially since understanding that adage correctly seems central to an effective response. When Machiavelli first asked whether it was better to be loved than feared or feared than loved, his response was precisely not that “it was better to be feared and respected than liked.” Instead, Machiavelli believed “that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.” Machiavelli concludes that “men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his control and not in that of others.” So it is, that the wise prince, the pragmatic prince, is the one who employs the safer strategy, but it is not the ideal or best.

This distinction is important as it illustrates two forms of leadership; the ideal leader, who is both loved and feared as one might both love and fear a father; and, the pragmatic leader, who rules with fear, but must be careful to avoid hatred. It appears to me that the author's account of Machiavelli's well-worn adage speak volumes, not so much to answering whether or not Don Draper passes some “leadership test,” but rather to what has become of our expectations when it comes to leadership. That we no longer demand magnanimity of our leaders is perhaps to be anticipated, as Machiavelli himself did; but that we no longer even believe in its possibility or its virtue is tragic.

Posted by: eruano | October 20, 2010 11:55 AM
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I think Daniel, Ashley, and others highlight important features of leadership in our public institutions. Powerful centralized leadership bypasses public collaboration and can undermine the trust developed between leader and public. However, Rhee and Don Draper may not be at fault quite for their leadership style (or lack thereof) but rather for the length of time to which they push their agendas without collaboration. A "Draper, Draper, and Draper" leadership style can sometimes be powerfully effective in bursts, but it is not ultimately sustainable. Those who are effective at a more, dare I say, dictatorial style, know when to pull back and open the floor for collaboration. This sense of timing in leadership is well displayed by Jaime Lerner, past mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. In the 60s and 70s, Jaime led Curitiba into a golden age of sustainability, transportation, and urban planning innovation by not playing nice with businesses and auto clubs who felt that large pedestrian lanes would hurt local business. To demonstrate the effectiveness of pedestrian thoroughfares, Jaime literally threw an art festival for children in a main street, blocking the passage of a protesting auto club. Economic activity in the area subsequently boomed as people got out of their cars and walked past large shopping areas. After seeing the effectiveness of this program, Jaime gained large buy-in from the community for his future recycling and green job training programs. Sometimes to make change, leaders need to wake up constituents from their collective misdirection. What distinguishes a true leader from a bully in this circumstance is that, out of love for his/her community, a leader knows when to gamble the trust of the people in order to make a necessary change. After that gamble has shifted the people's perspective, the leader then knows to devolve agency back to the people, forgoing the spotlight for the benefit of the community.

Posted by: atran1 | October 19, 2010 4:33 PM
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