The Wire as Management Textbook

By | January 17, 2016

Management consultants and leadership gurus often spend a lot of time looking for inspirational leaders and models of managerial success with which they can inspire people.

It’s become almost a cliché to draw examples from the military and sports. Those examples are often filled with products of private education and great universities, excluding individuals from more diverse backgrounds, or adding them in as ‘exceptions that prove the rule’.

The Wire offers up a variety of perspectives on leadership, management, vision, values and goals. None of them are particularly attractive, but the contrasts between them are instructive.

The show focuses largely on the drug trade in Baltimore. We’re introduced to the harsh realities of life in a criminal gang, with strong leadership, high risks and rewards, brutal performance management and a focus on delivering financial results. Yet even in this world we see conflicts around values and goals – Is market share as important as sustainable profitability? Is some competition healthy? Does co-operation with competitors create long term security of income? These conflicts tend to lead to murder rather than a board room spat, which does draw them into sharp focus.

More interesting challenges appear when the drug trade intersects with law enforcement, the school system, local politics and the media. The need to produce quick results and TV friendly statistics pulls against the need to actually make things better for the long term. Every Sales Director can relate to the struggle between working to produce solid, sustainable revenue, and having something good in the forecast for next quarter.

I don’t recommend that you adopt the leadership and management practices you’ll see in The Wire, but it is a great way to explore how different approaches work and the benefits and limitations of each.

Great leaders and ruthlessly effective management don’t always put their efforts into the greater good.

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