Leadership on The Wire

Popular culture can be a great source of material for lessons about leadership and the daunting challenge of creating meaningful, sustainable change in organizations and society–and it can provide a way to connect work, home, community, and self. For example, in the first meeting of my leadership and teamwork course in Wharton’s MBA program this Spring, I mentioned how the recently-completed HBO TV series, The Wire was loaded with stories from which we could learn much about leadership and change. It’s a huge hit in my family (not least because my brother, Paul Ben-Victor, is one of the actors), and we all regard it as the best that’s ever been on TV.

An enterprising student, Kristen Harris, picked up on the idea of an offline discussion about it, and she found a way to organize a discussion over lunch, which we held a few days ago. It was so much fun, in part because one of my children, Harry, was able to join us. Here’s a small sampling of the ideas that we tossed around over Thai food:

Don’t try to change what’s beyond your control. So many of the characters try to make things better, but very few succeed in the face of institutional corruption and constraints on mobility aspirations; witness the demise of Stringer Bell, erstwhile B-school student, who reached too far too fast in his quest to rise above the streets. Those that do succeed take one step at a time, within their range of discretion, like Cutty and the gym he built that gave some of the boys a constructive alternative to the drug game. Evidence of the efficacy of the small wins approach to change.

Mentors matter, if they have access to resources. All four of the boys in Season Four had someone who tried to help them make their way out: Duquan had Prezbo, Michael had Cutty, Randy had Carver, and Namond had Bunny. But only one, the one you want to smack, made it out of the game, because he had the sponsorship of someone who had the time, money, and connections to make it happen.

Service to a higher cause breeds loyalty. The most popular character, at least among our group, was Omar, a modern-day Robin Hood. His fiercely loyal crew were compelled to his cause because he had one that transcended pure self-interest.

There were many more questions raised than answered–Which character lived the noblest life? Did anyone manage to integrate the different parts of their lives? How important was social capital?–certainly enough for a full management course!
Participating in this discussion was, for me, a real four-way win (the term I use to define a move that creates value for all parts of life): I found a way to connect with students in a way that served their educational interests (work); I spent time with my son in my work setting and so he got a better feel for what I do and the people I work with, drawing us a bit closer (family); I contributed to Wharton students’ capacities to see applications of what we study in school in a larger societal context (community); and, in our comparison of Bunny’s success with Namond and his failure with Hamsterdam, I reinforced for myself the Talmudic insight about the value of saving a single life as tantamount to saving the world (self/spirit). So, all four domains were enriched by this small initiative.

I would love to hear about the leadership lessons you have learned from this amazing show. You might want to start start by noting who was your favorite character and what you learned from his or her story.

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