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Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

Draper's search for identity

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?

Don Draper excels at a critical leadership test: without Draper, his firm (Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) would be a cinder. Roger Sterling, one of the firm's founders, has nothing left but his temper and his libido. Another founder, Bertram Cooper, doesn't even have an office in the firm anymore. Lane Pryce is the penultimate staffer, tracking the firm's billings, but he's hopelessly distracted by a family homesick for London. The rest of the firm is full of eager youngsters, often with very good ideas, who lack the experience to drive them home.

Don has a fierce temper but even more fierce loyalty to those whose work he admires. Despite temptation, he's aimed his legendary sex drive away from Peggy. He sees brilliance in her, even if he couldn't quite bring himself to acknowledge her pivotal role in creating the campaign that won him his Clio, though he brought her closer to his inner circle in the Sunday finale. When Pete couldn't scrape together the contribution he was required to make to keep the firm afloat, Don quietly put the money up for him, although he was unquestionably motivated in part by the fact that Pete is the only member of the firm who knows the secret of Don's tangled past.

The real mark of Don's leadership is that he's been the key player to keep the firm afloat. As he said in the finale, he works on instinct, in both his professional and his personal lives. This season, he faked a competitor into near bankruptcy by hinting at a television campaign he decided the firm did not want. At the end of the last season, he brokered the strategy that split Sterling Cooper off from its new, misguided owners and talked Pete into helping provide the new firm's base by bringing along millions of dollars in business. Don is in charge of the creative part of the business--the "big idea" conceptions, boiled into a short phrase or a quick image, that convince corporate managers to spend big bucks to captivate consumers. His creative role stretches much farther, though, into the critical pivots and turns the firm has needed to survive in the wild world of Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, at a time when the rise of television advertising changed everything.

That doesn't necessarily make him a nice person. He has an incredibly complex relationship with every woman in his life, including a failed marriage with a former model, a troubled daughter--to go along with a drinking problem, a smoking problem and an anything-but-hip apartment in Greenwich Village. He is a serial philanderer with a dark past, turning to exercise in a search for some discipline over the centrifugal forces in his life. Now he's marrying his secretary but, as the closing shot of the finale hinted, not altogether sure he's done the right thing.

Don is, in short, a man who's anything but comfortable with himself. He switched dog tags with a fellow soldier killed during the Korean War, in part to escape a very troubled childhood, and he's been in search of his identity since. That ugly tension permeates every moment of his life, personal and professional. Without it, he wouldn't be Don.
He leads by flashes of insight and instinct: defining pathbreaking possibilities for his corporate clients, and using those bursts to drive the firm--and all of its employees--ahead, with larger billings and bigger clients. All of the tensions that have made a shambles of his personal life, and the lives of so many people around him, have made him an award-winning idea guy. Without Don's fierce and brutal search for identity, there would be no Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the Time-Life Building would be looking for a new tenant on its 37th floor.

In the finale, he told his secretary-turned-fiancee that she makes him feel more himself than anyone has. In the coming season, we'll see whether he can embrace himself as well as his new bride--and whether, as he becomes more himself, he loses his leadership edge. That's the real "Tomorrowland" hinted at in the finale's title.

By Donald Kettl

 |  October 18, 2010; 9:46 AM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , Pop culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Is Don Draper a leader? Maybe. A good leader? No. | Next: What Don Draper gets wrong

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