How to Succeed in Business, Don Draper Style

April 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

Dr. George Reed

Leadership Is a Process That Can Be Harnessed

By Derek Quizon (Chronicle for Higher Education)

What can executives and FBI agents learn from watching the hit television series Mad Men? Quite a bit, says the University of San Diego leadership-studies professor George Reed. The show’s producers interviewed him for “How to Succeed in Business, Draper Style,” a short feature included in Mad Men‘s Season 4 DVD boxed set. The feature examines the traits that make Don Draper—a partner at a fictional advertising agency in the 1960s, and the show’s protagonist—an effective leader.

Mr. Reed, whose leadership students include teachers, corporate managers, and FBI agents, had never seen the show but was instantly fascinated by the character of Mr. Draper (played by Jon Hamm), an ad executive whose personal flaws are matched only by his creative genius and business savvy. This is an edited version of Mr. Reed’s conversation with The Chronicle about Mad Men’s lessons for real people.

Q. What are some of the best qualities you see in Don Draper as a leader?

A. He is charismatic, he is focused, and he seems to have a very deep-seated and innate sense of what people want—which makes him an effective advertising executive, and it also makes him effective at running his own team. He has deep knowledge of the people on his team, and he’s able to find out what inspires them, what motivates them, and he uses that quite effectively.

Q. One of the most interesting things about the show is the transformations a lot of its characters undergo. Can you talk about the changes you’ve seen in Don throughout the series?

These characters—if you watch a single episode, you think you understand them. But when you continue to watch, you find there’s a whole lot more depth there. The perfect example is Joan Harris [the office manager, played by Christina Hendricks], who’s the office sexpot. But you begin to realize she’s an incredibly powerful and wise individual, and has the ability to exert her will in some remarkable ways.

Q. Do you think she’s a good example of a leader as well?

A. If we consider leadership the ability to influence other people, and move an organization toward common goals, you could find examples with most of these characters. Which also suggests that leadership is not something that is limited to authoritative positions—it is a process that can be harnessed by people throughout an organization.

Q. Do any of these lessons apply to, say, the FBI agents you’ve been working with this year?

A. Oh, absolutely. One of the things we try to do in leadership studies is find these patterns that are influenced by context but are also universal. If leadership is a process—if it is facilitated by authoritative positions but exists outside of them, that’s got to be just as true at a Madison Avenue advertising firm as it is in an FBI office, or any other organization.

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