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Amy Fraher
Scholar/Military leader

Amy Fraher

Amy L. Fraher is a retired Navy Commander and Aviator,Director of the International Team Training Center at San Diego Miramar College. Her book Thinking Through Crises comes out Spring 2011

What does it say about today's culture that we've idolized 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?

With America still deeply mired in seemingly irreconcilable war, recession, unemployment, foreclosures and financial debacles, I find it fascinating that we turn to a fictional television show for leadership guidance. Not just any program, but a record-winning show that glorifies a period in time when America was strong, foreigners were the enemy, white people ran most everything, men were the breadwinners and women knew their place. Within this framework we encounter the hard-drinking, skirt-chasing Don Draper, a war hero and self-made advertising exec who is often his own worst enemy. Putting this into perspective, I wonder: Is Draper just a man of his time, or can he pass today's leadership test?

Don Draper is certainly imaginative, creative and confident enough in his ideas to succeed in many innovative industries today that were nonexistent in the 1960s. Despite his often brusque mannerisms, he has a charisma that draws people to him and they follow his instructions to the most exacting detail, whether he actually meant (or remembered) what he said or not. This is where Draper's leadership will start to fall short in today's organizations.

Strong, charismatic leaders can create a dangerous 'dependency dynamic', in which their impressive competency crowds out the skills of other employees. In our complex, interrelated world this can have disastrous consequences. We have seen several examples as of late, from law enforcement blunders to the BP oil spill to the financial crisis, in which underlings attempted to raise concerns to higher ups with little success. Although Draper's inappropriate drinking, disregard for employees and sexually harassing behavior toward women would definitely get him fired in today's organizations, it is his unreflective steamroller approach to getting what he wants at any cost that would prove lethal to the organization as a whole. So why, if he is so ill suited for today's organizations, do we still find him so fascinating?

I suspect for many people, Don Draper represents a simpler America that they unconsciously long to return to, but realize is no longer feasible. Draper does what he wants, when he wants, with whom he wants, giving little consideration to the long-term consequences for those involved. Yet his contributions are critical enough to others' success that he has an irreproachable personal power. This used to be America's role in the world before global warming, 9/11, financial meltdown and war. Luckily we've moved on since then.

By Amy Fraher

 |  October 19, 2010; 2:11 PM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership , Followership , Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , Pop culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Sexism in Mad Men--what has (and hasn't) changed | Next: Good business vs good television


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Does it matter that "Don" is the product of a writer's mind? Don is a fictitious amalgamation. Don is not real. Turning Don into a roll model is the work of a lunatic.

Posted by: mikie44 | October 20, 2010 11:08 AM
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I agree with DRJCARLUCCI.

Men idolize him because he's an antidote to the emasculated male of today (sadly, there's one in the White House).

Women love him for the same reason.

A character like Draper has his flaws, but so do all men. But his flaws are masculinity unrestrained, not emasculation, which is far worse.

Posted by: fishcrow | October 20, 2010 10:40 AM
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We idolize "Don Draper" because we are immature and escapist.

Posted by: bigbrother1 | October 20, 2010 9:56 AM
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Mad Men represents the work world as it was in the 1960s. Like it or not -- Matthew Weiner's depiction is amazingly accurate. I worked for several Don Drapers.

Posted by: indvoter37 | October 20, 2010 8:33 AM
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I've met women who were just as roguish, except in reverse, about things like sex as many men are. Frankly, while many condemn "right wingers" for whatever they may view as sexually puritanical, there is plenty we have been brought by the sociopolitical left which has sexually puritanical elements to it as well, except the genesis of that which they have wrought in society in that regard is secular rather than religious in its origin.
Jerkhoff, the commenter above, seems to have a solid point that Draper hasn't "sexually harassed" anyone because his partners in his activities, while the activities are inappropriately sexual in the workplace, are willing participants. One has to be an unwilling participant to be sexually harassed by someone.

Posted by: SCOTSGUARDS | October 20, 2010 12:39 AM
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With the amount of alcohol he consumes, the number of cigarettes he smokes, the amount of unprotected sex he has - if he survives those things, he'll survive everything else.

Posted by: rbsher | October 19, 2010 9:04 PM
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In discussing this topic, you have to separate Don Draper's attitude towards women, which is at least partially a product of the time he lives in, from his leadership style, which is very much alive and well today. We can all wish things were different, but our world is full of Don Drapers who are at the top of the heap. Look at Steve Jobs -- by all accounts a brilliant visionary who rules by instilling absolute fear in his subordinates. Or how about 90 percent of the head coaches in the NFL today? For every Pete Carroll there are three Tom Coughlins. No matter how much we might wish that the world worked differently, fear is just as effective a motivator as encouragement.

I think that characterizing Don's behavior as sexual harassment or misogynistic is incorrect. Although this behavior would not be allowed in the workplace today, every single one of Don's relationships has been consensual. This is in marked contrast to both Pete and Greg (Joan's husband), who both committed rape on screen. Don may be confused and self-destructive, but he is no rapist. We all tend to forget this distinction (for example, equating Tiger Woods' behavior with Ben Roethlisberger, for example), but this difference means everything in the world.

By the way, NYC, the reason the fans dislike Betty is that she remains exactly the same person she was in season 1 -- a spoiled abusive child who takes out her own insecurities on her children, spouses, employees and friends. Blame the writers, but Betty may just be the most repellent character in TV history...

Posted by: jerkhoff | October 19, 2010 6:53 PM
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Like Tony Soprano, people overlook his manifest character flaws preferring to fawn over the illusion of power, exemplified by success in business and treating women badly. Don is infinitely better than Tony however, who was a sociopath. Don is genuinely good but really messed up, but there is a huge contingent of Mad Men fans who are out and out misogynists, making such comments as "I can't wait until he cheats on her" and casually tearing apart his latest female interest. Hence Betty's condemnation by the fans while Don, who emotionally abused her throughout their marriage and cheated constantly, is cheered on.

Posted by: NYC123 | October 19, 2010 5:41 PM
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As a die-hard Mad Men fan, I don't idolize Don Draper as a roll model, I idolize Matthew Weiner for creating such a wonderfully complex character called Don Draper.

Posted by: democat | October 19, 2010 5:28 PM
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Personally, I'd prefer a world with more Don Drapers and fewer Obamas and Oprahs.

Suffocating on estrogen.

Posted by: drjcarlucci | October 19, 2010 4:32 PM
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