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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • November 4, 2013
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3 Vital Leadership Lessons from Breaking Bad 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

As the cultural behemoth that is ‘Breaking Bad’ finally reaches the end of its run, the time has come to ask the obvious question: “What are the key business lessons we can learn from this tale of entrepreneurial spirit?

And, as your fearless commentator, it falls to me to answer:

1. There aren’t any.

Or if there are, they’re entirely incidental. That doesn’t stop people from writing about it, of course.

If you Google “business lessons from breaking bad” you’ll get enough results to while away a morning or two, and even an esteemed publication like The Economist wants in on the act.

But then the same thing happened with The SopranosThe Wire and even The Simpsons.

Look, the reason articles like this one get column inches is not that TV writers are business geniuses who embed cutting-edge business models into their scripts – it’s because harried business editors (and equally harried contributors) love anything that’s a little out of the ordinary – and even better if it references an incredibly popular TV show, hence increasing the likelihood that you’ll actually click through and read the article.

‘Breaking Bad’ is no more a case study in business practices than ’24’ was a training video for the CIA. Enjoy both programs for what they are – first-class entertainment – but don’t waste your time trying to read between the lines for inspiration at work.

2. But the exercise is a worthwhile one…

If you watched all 5 seasons of ‘Breaking Bad’ – 62 episodes – you’d have spent somewhere between 45 and 50 hours immersed in an admittedly grippingly portrayed milieu. Even with time shaved off by skipping the adverts during binge watching sessions, that’s still an impressive amount of time to devote to someone else’s work of fiction.

In fact, it’s an embarrassingly high multiple of the amount of time most leaders spend strategizing about their own business. So, instead of searching for hidden business lessons in the weekly high jinks of your favorite cast of characters, why not invest 45 minutes instead in analyzing the real-life lessons you learned that week in the ongoing saga that is your own business?

I guarantee that if you make that investment, you’ll be in the top 1% of business strategists – at least in terms of time spent.

3. And there is one role you should consider for yourself.

No, it’s not Mr. White, or Skyler, or Jesse, or even the slyly brilliant (and wryly named) Saul Goodman. The role that leaders most need to play is not that of lead actor, or even best supporting actor – your role is as the scriptwriter (in the case of ‘Breaking Bad’, most often the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan).

Your job is to envisage the future and find a way to get your business there. Sadly, many leaders I work with simply turn up each day and simply react to whatever happens that day – the equivalent of reading the lines handed to them.

So don’t go hunting for hidden business lessons in ‘Breaking Bad’, or whatever the next blockbuster is that TV thrusts upon us. Instead, study your own business intently – and write your own script.


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