Intuition without integrity
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?
There is much attractive about Don Draper beyond his dapper and debonair looks. Those of us who addictively watch Mad Men pull for our protagonist, even as we struggle with him.
Don fits the mold of the lonely, heroic protagonist that has defined so many American stories. We empathize with his backstory--born of a prostitute who died at childbirth leaving him with an abusive father, buried his past identity to flee the Korean War, and started from nothing to rise to the top of the Madison Avenue advertising world. We try mightily to contextualize our judgments within his era. We look at the clubby business culture of liquor, cigarettes, sexism and racism, and ask if his conduct rises above the low bar of the times. When we compare Don with his partners--the cold and narcissistic Sterling, the aloof and awkward Pryce, the eccentric and patrician Cooper, and the creepy and elitist Campbell--he looks like he should get an award from Peter Drucker.
In his role as the creative leader of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Don has much to recommend. He has shown a great eye for talent and his judgments are purely about the merit of their work. His promotion of Peggy has been his highlight (she once again demonstrated her value to the firm in the finale). He has led teams to higher performance, managed crises effectively and been loyal to those who've been loyal to him. He has taken big risks, more often successful than not, and frequently played chess when his partners or competitors were playing checkers. As creative director, Don is able fill the gap between information and decisions, connect dots others don't see and understand the emotion and thought process of the customer. His talents make him the only indispensable partner.
There is a difference, though, between being a great creative director or manager and being a great leader. While I like Don the character, I would never want to work with the real Don. His lack of integrity is just too severe. He lives a life that is not integrated and that lacks a moral center.
At the center of his life is a deep, dark secret that, if made public, could destroy his life and career. That is a huge burden to carry. Secrets are never good for leaders, and he's got a big skeleton in a small closet. His secret carries three problems.
First, by being secretive and a man of mystery, he reserves the right to have other secrets, such as the affairs or his abrupt business decisions. When we honestly share our secrets, our mistakes and our challenges, even with a small group of people, we are less likely to add to the list. Don's list of secrets seems only to grow.
Second, he gives power to the handful of people who know his secret, and they can hold the secret over him. Peter Cambell and his ex-wife Betty are not people I would want to have holding secrets over my head. This levels his influence at work and with his family, and can hold him hostage when he may need to act.
Third, his secrets block his ability to be truly intimate with others and form closer friendships. This season opened up with "Who is Don Draper?" No one seems to know; and his mystery, while sexy perhaps, will not engage support for his vision or goals in the long term.
Beyond the lack of integrity in his life, Don also lacks a clear moral compass. He has shown no inclination to care for others, he is not an engaged father and he has not shown any inclination toward social responsibility on the causes of his day such as civil rights. His stand against tobacco companies was an opportunistic shoot-the-moon strategy for his business, not a courageous moral act. And he has often put his immediate gratification (especially sexual) before his work, his family and his sense of self.
But there still is hope, and I for one will keep watching and hoping. I had high hopes for Don when he started dating Dr. Miller--swimming every morning, refusing drinks at work and journaling at night (with some deep insights along the way). Perhaps the new chapter he began in the finale will help him settle, and he will begin to match his incredible business intuition with personal and professional integrity.
My favorite quote this season from Don was: "People are always telling us who they are, but we ignore it because of who we want them to be." I don't know that Don has told us yet who he really is, but maybe I'm just ignoring it because of who I want him to be...
It will be painful to wait nine months to see if he can become a better leader, lover and father.
Posted by: awatts3 | October 25, 2010 6:21 PM
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