Breaking Bad?

“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”  Harry S. Truman

Chemistry is fast becoming the nation’s prime religion. In times of personal and emotional crisis more and more Americans, who once turned to their religious leaders for guidance, are now re-concentrating their confidence on pharmacological promise. According to Forbes, narcotic painkillers, prescribed over 128 million times last year alone, top the list of the most popular drugs in the United States. Apparently, from Viagra to Vicodin, chemistry’s charm has become the remedy of choice for physical flaw, emotional discomfort, and overall personal insecurity.

Chemistry, however, has negative as well as positive societal consequences. Aside from pharmacology’s valuable physical and psychological properties, the illegal use of its piquant tonic creates nefarious results. A prime example of this phenomenon is the TV series Breaking Bad. Currently in its fifth and final season, the program portrays the depraved transformation of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher gradually seduced by science’s enchanting power.  Played by the Emmy award-wining actor Bryan Cranston, the fictitious 50-year old high school professor, Walter “Heisenberg” White, gradually becomes a ruthless drug baron after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Convinced that his extensive knowledge of chemistry is being used to provide financial support for his family, White teams up with a dropout former student to establish a “meth lab” that produces a recipe for the world’s finest illegal narcotic!

Chemistry’s fictitious charm has unfortunately produced real-life tragedy! On September 17, 2012, undercover officers arrested William Duncan, 43, of Linden, TX for cooking and selling crystal meth at the junior high school where he teaches chemistry. Apparently, his actions were directly inspired by Bryan Cranston’s portrayal.  The arrest marks the second time that real life has imitated art. Last month, authorities in Alabama arrested another man for making and trafficking methamphetamine. What distinguishes the incident from the former is that the alleged criminal actually shares the same name with Breaking Bad’s main character!

Apart from providing the primary premise for the mini-series, the verity of chemistry can be judiciously used to describe the art of leadership.  In fact, in his 2003 address to the Association of Public Treasurers of the United States and Canada, General Norton Schwartz, used chemistry as a metaphor for his valuable insights on the subject. According to this 22nd Chief of Staff of the Air Force, “good leadership is key to any successful organization.” He consequently provided a short list of qualities, skills and values that are vital to the health and well being of the American nation. Schwartz’s “chemistry of leadership” contains five basic compounds: (1) character, (2) situational awareness, (3) credibility, (4) interpersonal skills, and (5) ethical values.

Much has been written about the importance of personal character. Leaders with respectable character demonstrate moral and professional competency. They are resourceful problem-solvers whose inner drive and determination are fused with humility to form the stable foundation of their operational vision. They possess patience, good judgment and moral courage. Anyone can perform under ideal circumstances. The true test of a leader’s character, however, occurs when his/her tenacity and ethical grit is strained in the crucible of difficult circumstances. According to the retired general, people find it easy to follow such resolute leaders because they provide creative paths beyond complacency or the crisis of the moment. Leaders whose character validates the verity of such chemistry inspire the resolve of their respective followers – be they constituents, employees, or parishioners.

Situational awareness is the second element of Schwartz’s periodic table of leadership. Like an astute Air Force combat pilot whose life is predicated on being aware of an incredible array of data and information, the Air Force Commander encourages aspiring leaders to develop the discipline of intuitive awareness. The organic administrative subsidy of such incisive influence includes the steady orchestration of resources, personnel and environment, both within and outside any entity. Situational awareness, however, is not the result of micromanagement or the technology of complex system monitoring.  On the contrary, appropriate situational awareness generates an empowering environment where people are given the freedom and permission for creative risk-taking. The positive consequence of such leadership chemistry on morale and performance can never be overstated!

The third fundamental ingredient of leadership’s multifarious composition is credibility. Leaders are continually evaluated. While their credibility is “on the line” from the moment they assume position, genuine respect, trust and confidence must be earned on a day-to-day basis for their entire leadership tenure. Credibility is about enduring trustworthiness. It is a decisive quality that differentiates fit from toxic leader-follower relationships. Leadership credibility is about being true to oneself, of having coherence between ideas, promises, and engagements.

People listen to leaders when they talk, promise, and make bold claims. Leaders are watched closely as they subsequently act. Their decisions are evaluated against their aspirational themes. Error and mismatch can lead to confusion and doubt over a leader’s true intentions. If executional laxity persists, leaders gradually “break bad” and unwittingly lose valuable credibility.

Leadership must include the vivacity produced by the chemical reaction of interpersonal skill and contextual application to avoid the decline of credibility. This is the fourth governing element of a reliable leadership formula. Today’s leaders face difficult challenges in the wake of political, business, and religious scandals involving those who have abused the trust of others. Numerous studies can be cited indicating over 90% of executive failures are attributable to a lack of interpersonal competencies. Factors such as teambuilding, work environment, staff retention, trust and change management all play a vital role in achieving leadership success. Failure to live up to these and other challenging expectations can bring a swift fall from grace.

The chemistry of genuine leadership is not concerned with moving paper, media photo-ops, installing new technologies, or the advance of novel management theories. It does not use financial bottom-line motivations to justify “breaking bad” behaviors!  While remaining loyal to organizational mission and shareholder expectations, effective leaders reinforce environments that help their people reach for higher vistas of individual potential. Such leaders uses the lab of motivation to “cook” the strengths, ambitions, capabilities, talents and shortcomings of their constituents into an organizational verve that is more potent than the sum of its individual properties!

Ethical values are the fifth and final element of Schwartz’s leadership chemistry list. While the connection of this compound to great leadership should be obvious, it is surprising how often the accountability of such moral linkage is allowed to shatter. Unfortunately, executives can succeed without ethical standards.  Ethical leaders, however, have unwavering integrity and demonstrate a commitment to noble touchstones associated with longer-term organizational vitalities.

A prevalent theme in popular culture during the last decade has been the media’s unfortunate portrayal of criminal and immoral characters as good and justified people.  Breaking Bad has joined the likes of The Shield, The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and House to create a genre of dramatic narratives whose award-winning episodes have all strained to justify the incongruous use of mischief by otherwise moral personalities.  People, we are led to believe, are not inherently prone towards depravity, but tend to become so due to the chemistry of circumstances beyond their immediate control.

Are such “lab-cooked” narratives legitimate? Is art responsible to represent reality or should culture allow itself to be influenced by the imaginative representations of conditionally malevolent frameworks? From Enron and Worldcom, to Bernie Madoff and Andrea Yates, the recent rash of questionable accounting procedures, insider trading, governmental indignities, and allegations of sexual improprieties are all scandals of leadership that have flustered the corporate, religious, political, and non-profit worlds.

Walter White’s drug-making pseudonym suggests the name of Werner Heisenberg, a physicist renown for theorizing the “uncertainty principle.” This uncertainty principle helped to create the study of quantum mechanics. Simply put, the principle of uncertainty hypothesizes that the more one accurately measures a given element, the less accurately another related but different property can be controlled.  When applied as a metaphor for his desire to control his unfortunate personal circumstances, Walter Heisenberg’s use of chemistry fails to deliver the certainty of his desires.  On the contrary, while “cooking” a preeminent quality of illegal methamphetamine for the purpose of securing a destiny beyond his reach, he abandons his family and loses his soul!

Religious, political, and business leaders equally share a moral obligation to employ the influence with which they are entrusted with modesty and ethical integrity!  They should heed the tragic narrative of Breaking Bad by guarding themselves from engendering organizational cultures that accept the chemistry of questionable and even criminal practices. Authentic leaders courageously defy the seduction of such disgraceful administrative predilections. One should never attempt to control the uncertainties of leadership by mixing immoral deeds with noble aspirations. If anything, Breaking Bad powerfully illustrates the dangerous naiveté of pursuing any and all manipulative formulas.

Merely having good intentions, however, is not good enough!  Contemporary leaders must never allow even a hint of employing their level of influence to “break bad.” To do so can only lead to the tragic descent of the decent! Authentic leaders should alternatively strive to utilize the inspirational chemistry of their shared ethical verity to avoid a fee-fall into self-deception.


Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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