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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

In both drama and leadership, character is action

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?

Creative. Inventive. Gutsy. Willful. Those are four adjectives that come to mind when I think of Don Draper. But we must also weigh three others: selfish, impulsive and self-destructive.

So is Don Draper a leader? Let's consider the facts.

To his agency colleagues, he is the creative heart and soul of the agency. He values good work and values talent that can produce. He is one who puts good work ahead of business. What matters to Don is the opportunity to do creative work. And as shown by Don's jubilation at winning a Clio for his floor-wax commercial, the respect of peers matters too.

Don is a taskmaster; he holds people to high standards. In that regard he is a good boss. He expects their best, even when it means working crazy hours. He pushes and prods, challenges and cajoles. And so as we have seen with the development of Peggy, a secretary turned chief copywriter, he is a good boss.

Don, like many creative executives, is less concerned with the operations side of the agency. He does however value the work that Pete Campbell, the erstwhile junior partner in accounts, executes. Don rarely admits it; but as when he pays for Pete's portion of the partner's contribution to keep the agency afloat, he shows it.

Don's personal life is a mess. Its foundation is a house of lies; he took the name of another man and has been impersonating him for a decade and a half. This ultimately caused the rupture of his marriage. Don is also a serial philanderer. Ultimately, Don has been lying to himself, and until recently seems comfortable with it.

Yet Don is loyal. He genuinely cares about his daughter, though often he does not know quite how to show it. He also remains attached to his first wife, who died this season and for a time was the only one who knew his true identity. He can be a soft touch for friends in need. Don has a heart to those in need.

Don is a flawed character, rich in dramatic power but ultimately a leader with serious deficiencies. Ask yourself this: is Don someone you would want to count on in a crisis? A likely answer would be no. His interest in self-preservation would outweigh his commitment to the team. Case in point is his cancellation of the bid for the military contractor because a background check would reveal his true identity. Such a loss of potential business hurt his agency, struggling for billing and relevancy.

The character of Don Draper is a rich one and for those of us who think about leadership he embodies the maxim. In drama, character is action, same for leaders. Don's leadership is not perfect but he represents aspects of the human condition, notably human frailty in such vivid detail he serves as an example of how and how not to lead.

Yet there is hope for Don, as there is for all of us, that our virtues will outweigh our flaws if we make changes.

By John Baldoni

 |  October 18, 2010; 11:40 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: The 'Mad Women' are the show's exemplars | Next: 360 degrees of Don Draper


Please report offensive comments below.

He wasn't married to his "first wife." She was married to the fellow he was impersonating, thus he had to "divorce" her to maintain his pretense.

Posted by: lilypad44 | October 18, 2010 4:39 PM
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