5 Leadership Lessons You Can Learn From Watching The Walking Dead

Leadership lessons from The Walking DeadI don't watch much TV, but I love The Walking Dead.

Most boys love to shoot things.  From rubber bands, to water hoses, to our own urine streams, we can't get enough of the satisfaction of being able to aim at a target and hit it.  That's why any show where people get to shoot slow moving zombies in the head is an instant hit with us boys.

Luckily The Walking Dead has a lot more depth than just mindless shooting.  It's really a great show all around, even when it sometimes gets sidetracked (The Shane and Lori drama was quite painful to watch).

After spending 13 years as a fireman, I can appreciate Rick's role in the show.  He's burdened with the responsibility of a group of people who've come to depend on him.  He also has to make very fast decisions, often with little information.  Whether It's a right or wrong decision, you have to live with it and move on because you'll have to make another one very soon.  That's a lot of pressure, especially when lives are at stake.

Below are 5 leadership qualities I've seen from Rick, and others during the series, that I think any leader should embody.  I'm sure there are a lot more, maybe I'll create a part two to this post at the end of the season.

Leadership lessons from The Walking DeadSometimes You Have To Make Difficult Decisions

At the end of episode 7 in season 2 of the Walking Dead, Sophia (now a walker) emerges from the barn on Hershel's farm, to the disbelief of everyone.  The group had given up trying to find her and were in utter shock when she stumbled out of the barn, after the group had just went on a walker shooting frenzy.  Shane started the incident when he broke open the barn lock, an act of open defiance to Rick's leadership abilities.  As the group stands there frozen, Rick slowly walks up to Sophia, shooting her in the head and ending her suffering.  A powerful moment in the series that showed why Rick is the leader despite the second guessing by others in the group.

As a leader, sometimes you have to make difficult choices.  Some of these choices not only affect you and the company, but everyone that works there.  It's a lot of responsibility.  Sometimes as a leader you'd love to pass the responsibilities onto someone else, but real leaders know that they have the ultimate responsibility (or burden) of making the difficult decisions.

You Don't Have To Be At The Top To Be A Leader

Darryl, one of the show's favorite characters, is a true 360 degree leader.  In the early episodes of the series, he was shown as an authority hating red-neck, who cared little for anyone else in the group.  Oh how we were wrong!  Darryl has grown to become Rick's trusted right hand man.  He works with Rick, unlike Shane, who was always trying to undermine him.  The rest of the group, especially Carol, have grown quite fond of him because he's proven through his actions that he cares for them and will risk his life in a heartbeat for any one of them.

Leadership lessons from The Walking Dead

Many people feel like they can't be a leader unless they are in charge.  Wrong.  You can be a leader from any position and in any company.  Leadership is something you earn, regardless of your position or authority.  Darryl is a great example of someone who isn't trying to be in the limelight, doesn't want to be seen as a leader, but is seen in that light because of his actions.  In his begrudgingly way, people know he cares, not because of what he says, but by what he does.

Great Leaders Don't Abuse Their Position

During season 2, when the group happens on the Green family farm, it seems like the safe haven they've been searching for.  Hershel is uneasy with some members of the group and wants them to leave.  Rick pleads with Hershel and begins the process of trying to win him over.  Rick and his group could have easily taken the farm by force if they wanted to, but Rick chose diplomacy and in the end, gained valuable and loyal members to the group.

Leadership lessons from The Walking Dead

As Ben Parker stated to a his nephew Peter Parker (before he became SpiderMan), “With great power comes great responsibility”.  Just because you have the power to do something, doesn't mean you use it to get your way.  Great leaders understand the power and responsibility they wield and do not take it lightly.  They only show their full power when they absolutely have to.

Always Stand By Your People

When Glenn and Maggie are taken hostage by the Governor, Glenn tells his captors that his group is coming to get him as they speak.  He meant it.  He knows his man Rick doesn't leave his people behind, ever.  Despite differences of opinion between the group members and sometimes questioning Rick's decision making, It's crystal clear to everyone that Rick has their back no matter what.  Countless times throughout the series he's risked his life for the members of the group.

Leadership lessons from The Walking Dead

Employees who know that their boss will never throw them under the bus and will have their back when the chips are down will always have their respect and loyalty.  When I was with the fire department, we used to have a captain who didn't always get along with some of the firemen.  Many had differences in opinion on how he should run the firehouse.  But we were fiercely loyal to him.  Why?  He always had our back.  On numerous occasions  when one of us messed up (sometimes in a big way), the deputy chief would come down looking to take his wrath out on the wrongdoer.  What would happen?  Every single time, no matter what, our captain would take full responsibility and all of the blame (and yelling) for us.  We would get an earful from him later on, but he always protected his guys from the higher ups, even when we deserved to it.  You'll do anything for a leader like that.

Great Leaders Lead By Example

Throughout the series, whenever a difficult mission came up, Rick was always the first one in.  He never asks anyone to take a risk that he isn't prepared to take first.  From the rescue mission to get the handcuffed Merle off the roof in season one to leading a group of convicts to clean out the prison cell blocks in season three, he's always taking on the bulk of the risks.

Leadership lessons from The Walking Dead

As Benjamin Franklin stated, “Well done is better than well said”.  People will follow leaders who lead from the front of the pack, who are willing to take the same risks as the the ones they ask their people to take. 

We hear stories everyday of the corporate CEO who slashes thousands of jobs to save the company money, while still receiving a generous bonus for himself.  Giving yourself a paycut may not make a dent in the bottom line, but it'll tell your people that you're ready to make the same sacrifices you're asking them to take.

What leadership lessons have you learned from The Walking Dead?

In a world full of flesh eating dead people, leaders have to make hard and fast decisions….and live with the consequences of their decisions.  Fortunately for most of us, poor leadership rarely leads to anyone getting eaten alive, though we may feel like that sometimes.  I see Rick as a great leader who didn't ask for the position or the responsibility, but does the best with what he has.

What leadership tips have you gleaned from watching The Walking Dead?  Leave them in the comments below!

 images courtesy of AMC 


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CEO at 3Bug Media
Gary Shouldis is the founder of 3Bug Media, a web marketing company that helps businesses create 360 Marketing Strategies to dominate their market. His blog is read by over 20 thousand small business owners a month and has been featured in the N.Y. Times Small Business, Business Insider and Yahoo Small Business.
6 replies
  1. Peter
    Peter says:

    Thank you for this gem! I have always been a fan of the zombie genre despite the fact that most films suffer from abysmally low budgets and their consequences. When I first heard about the TV series I didn’t have high expectations but fell in love with it and the cast 30 minutes into the first episode.

    Rick is a superb example of the reluctant hero who steps in to fill a leadership vacuum in a crisis and saves the day. We need more like him instead the current crop of Marie Antoinette style egoists who make the headlines for screwing over their employees out of political spite. Until a few decades ago, if you as the boss screwed up you fell on your sword or went down with your ship. It was a point of honor. Today our CEOs just throw their employees under the bus and then exit with their $50 million golden parachutes.

  2. Cathy Woods
    Cathy Woods says:

    It must be hard being a leader and making decisions when, if you screw up, people get eaten alive. Rick doesn’t have time to dwell on his decisions, he has to keep moving on, even when those closest to him get killed. Great post!

  3. Gary Shouldis
    Gary Shouldis says:

    Thanks for the comments Cathy, see you’re a fan. I think Rick’s going to have some tough choices to make the second half of this season. Leading, and leading under immense pressure, are two different things.

  4. Gary Shouldis
    Gary Shouldis says:

    Thanks for the comment Peter. I’ve always been a fan of the zombie genre, it’s scary and cheesy at the same time.

    I am glad The Walking Dead came out though, finally a serious show with AAA animations and acting.

    You hit it on the head, Rick is a reluctant leader. This is a situation where you’re glad you are not in charge as the stakes are too high for most people to stomach. You see early on in the series how Rick was constantly second guessed (thanks in part to Shane). You can see now that people in the group understand the magnitude of the position and how difficult it is, and they seem to be rallying around him now as a true leader.

    I think most corporate leaders have it too easy today, like you said, instead of going down with the ship, they float away in their golden parachute, no matter how poor a job they did.

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