Why every leader needs to watch "Breaking Bad"

This image released by AMC shows Bryan Cranston as Walter White, left, and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in a scene from "Breaking Bad."
Frank Ockenfels,AP Photo/AMC

(MoneyWatch) Walter White, the antihero in the acclaimed TV series "Breaking Bad," is the ideal leader and the role model for you -- if you read popular leadership books. It shows exactly why the advice in most business books is worse than off base: It can damage companies and careers. (Spoiler alert. If you haven't seen the series and might some day, don't read this blog post.)

Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, N.M., who has little money and poor health insurance. To bring home extra money, he works at a local car wash, where his tyrant boss sometimes makes him leave his usual post at the cash register and hand-dry the cars, including those of his jeering students. When a chronic cough turns out to be advanced lung cancer, he uses his genius as a chemist to start cooking up crystal meth. In the seasons that follow he "breaks bad" by giving into his dark urges of power and lust and, as the final season starts, he is positioned to become the crystal meth drug lord of the American southwest.

The series reveals a backstory of how such a talented chemist and strategist ended up teaching high school. His former girlfriend and former best friend began a relationship, and (it appears) pushed him out of a new business that he had helped found. That business is now worth billions. He got married, had two children and got the only job he could find -- teaching high school.

So the series presents two versions of the same character: White the teacher and family man, and Heisenberg the drug lord, the man who will seek his fortune no matter the cost to his family, his community or even to himself.

So why would this series be important for leaders? As philosopher Kenneth Burke wrote in the last century, literature functions as equipment for living. It contains lessons, distilled guidance, and lets us run "what if" scenarios on our own lives.

Business books offer two types of advice. The first, what I call the "power up" pile, say that leadership starts with a desire, a burning passion to accomplish something in the world, to make a difference. If you're playing big, then the impact you want to make is greater than you can do alone. Think about what you want, use creative thinking and perseverance and doors will open. Look deep within your own mind, that greatest of all computers, and into your personal wellspring of talents, abilities and resourcefulness. Learn influence, politics, persuasion, negotiation and use Machiavellian techniques when necessary. Do your part by going all out, while developing yourself and watch for the emergent opportunities.

In this view, whatever you think, you manifest. You can get it by going after it, because you really are that great. So play big, play to win, do what it takes and make it happen. These books are loaded with stories and quotes from seemingly smart people.

If you follow the "power up" advice, to the letter, you'll become Heisenberg the drug lord.

The second pile is the "rule your spirit" set of books. These are often mislabeled as business books and are really Christian sermons or Buddhist meditations. The greatest leaders, this advice says, are those who subject their hearts and minds to something more important than greed or money. It's about giving back and serving others. Find the noblest thing you can do and do it. And when your body screams that you want more, that's the devil or illusion. Pray, fast, meditate and focus on the higher things. And maybe, just maybe, you'll get a lot more this way than you would if you ran your life through greed.

Walter White, the teacher, is a product of the "rule your spirit" approach. What could be nobler than teaching and subjecting himself to ridicule as a part-time car wash employee. Doesn't his family deserve better?

There are people who will flame me here, saying I'm setting up straw-man arguments. And I agree that most writers in the "power promise" approach would frown on cooking crystal meth. And many in the "rule your spirit" approach also say that your spirit wants something more than underemployment. However, in almost 20 years of traveling the world, keynoting conferences, and coaching and consulting to thousands of the most affluent in the world, I'm in a good position to observe the effects of these approaches. The "power promise" set is filled with narcissistic monsters. And the "rule your spirit" group is filled with people who are trying to make peace with settling for less than they are capable of.

I've spent the last two years of my life examining the question of how leaders use their dark side without being possessed by it. White shows all the pitfalls. Ignore your dark side, and you become inept -- that's the character we meet at the start of the series. Give your dark side too much room and it will possess you, blinding you to the damage you do, or to the emotional consequences of it. That's Heisenberg the drug lord.

The third approach is to develop a "noble obsession" that gives you the power of Heisenberg and the noble vision of White. The best leaders I have ever met are run by noble obsessions.

A noble obsession is a burning passion to change something important, fueled by energy that is unique to your mind, body and spirit. Little has been written about how to develop a noble obsession for yourself. (I write about how to develop your noble obsession in my personal blog.)

White was noble; Heisenberg was obsessed. Neither had a noble obsession. Here are three ways to get you started on your noble obsession:

First, find where your core values demand something in the world must be changed. Something is wrong and needs to be fixed. In a recent public program I ran in Los Angeles, attendees identified how returning vets are treated as a burning issue. Others identified the politics in their companies, which holds back innovation and results to shareholders. Still others picked concerns about environmentalism, tax policy or our educational system in the U.S.. Notice all of these are about benefiting others, not just the person who raised the issue.

Get mad. Get really mad. Then place that anger deep inside yourself where it will smolder for years without going out. That is the fire that leads to great things getting done. That's your noble passion.

Second, link your noble passion to personal characteristics and quirks, including those aspects of yourself that you don't like. Find those who give you boundless energy. As I've written before, learning disorders and other "weaknesses" often come bearing gifts. Many people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, insomnia, generalized anxiety or other perceived weaknesses have a lot of energy. There is a school of thought in psychiatry and psychology that some of these may be aspects of personality in addition to, or even instead of, psychological illnesses. The thinking continues that the gifts of these high-energy individuals should be embraced. If you are such a person, instead of fighting your nature, consider, in consultation with a professional, giving your nature a problem to work on. Your noble passion is ideal.

If you aren't a person with one of these issues, then rely on your core values and natural strengths to give you energy. Many people become fixated on a problem only when the problem is "worthy of them."

Third, don't ever allow the fire to rage -- or to fizzle out. A noble passion is unstable, and making sure it never tips into an inferno, or an ash heap, requires constant attention. If it blazes too much, its anger can possess you. Remember that literature is equipment for living; ask yourself if you're becoming Heisenberg the drug lord. If you are, the fire needs to be given less fuel.

If it goes out, you become White. When that happens, go back to step one and next time make sure the fire stays lit.

This is an introduction to what I believe is the most important topic in leadership right now: using, without being possessed by, the dark side of your nature. Those who get it right do great things. Those who get it wrong derail or become inept.

So how would White's story have played out differently if he were run by a noble obsession? We don't know exactly what happened to push him out of his former company, but a man with core values about perfection and changing the world by using his great gifts of chemistry and strategy would not have settled for a role using less than his best abilities. He would have fed a sense of righteous indignation about what happened, and decided to settle the score by doing better than those who pushed him out. He might have even have brought his hurt feelings under the control of his noble obsession and moved forward in that company despite the sense of betrayal.

That Walter White would be on the cover of Fast Company and Fortune, not on the FBI's Most Wanted List, or as a one-line obituary about a local teacher having lost his battle with cancer.

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.