The leadership strategies behind Walter White’s meth empire

By Ben Wasserstein


Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work?” Walter White hisses to his wife at the midpoint of the most-quoted monologue in AMC’s Breaking Bad. “A business big enough that it could be listed on the Nasdaq goes belly up. Disappears!”

A stock exchange reference might seem out of place on a show about an Albuquerque meth king, but Breaking Bad, which begins airing its final eight episodes on Aug. 11, has always focused on the financial rewards of breaking the law. Over the course of the series, Walt (played by Bryan Cranston), an overqualified, milquetoast chemistry teacher who began cooking meth to pay for lung cancer treatments, has built his drug operation into an international powerhouse. And through Walt’s increasingly unhinged management style, Breaking Bad creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan has offered a riveting critique of professional leadership.

Walt’s success is attributable, for the most part, to the superiority of his product. His “blue meth” is the best on the market, 99.1 percent pure, and he’s able to command higher prices than his competitors. Still, in order to rise he’s had to commit multiple murders, including a vehicular homicide and the assassination of his boss with a wheelchair bomb — not the standard corporate trajectory. As a strategist, though, Walt has often proceeded by the book. At his operation’s make-or-break moment, when his partners want to quit and sell the business out from under him, he makes an empire-saving pivot that would win plaudits from Michael Porter, the Harvard Business School professor who gave us the classic “five forces” template for analyzing competition.

In the season 5 story line, Walt and his partners — his former student, the inveterate homeboy Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and dead-eyed ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) — have stolen 1,000 gallons of a crystal meth precursor, methylamine.

Looking to end his relationship with Walt, Mike makes a deal to sell his and Jesse’s shares of the methylamine to Declan (Louis Ferreira), a rival dealer. But Declan demands Walt’s share, too, to get Walt’s product off the market entirely. Walt’s counter: that Declan distribute Walt’s meth. As Porter explains, “Strategy can be viewed as building defenses against the competitive forces or finding a position in the industry where the forces are weakest.” The offer is more lucrative for Declan, who accepts reluctantly. In a masterstroke, Walt creates for himself a cosseted new role within the industry as a pure manufacturer with no involvement in the street-level market.

Leadership is more than strategy, however. As management theorists and self-help authors contend in book after book, it’s also about how one cultivates business relationships. Tufts professor Jeswald Salacuse, author of Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People, argues that “good leaders are invariably effective negotiators.” Walter is a ruthless negotiator, but he’s shortsighted. When Walt and Declan meet, Walt demands subservience. “Now, say my name,” Walt growls, his voice dropping a register. His bargaining style maximizes profits, at least for the moment, but inflames rivals.

In scenes like this, Gilligan reveals Walt’s true, darker motivations. As a young scientist, Walt co-founded and then left a company that’s now worth billions, and he’s never gotten over it. His need for recognition overpowers his more sympathetic drive to set his family up financially. As he tells Jesse of his deal with Declan: “You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.” But resentment, of course, rarely leads to wise business decisions.

When he’s not homicidal, Walt’s a fairly nurturing employer. In their Harvard Business Review article “How to Keep Your Top Talent,” Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt write that “the very best programs place emerging leaders in ‘live fire’ roles where new capabilities can — or, more accurately, must — be acquired.” In his role as Jesse’s boss, Walt knows this instinctively. Jesse was a screwup in Mr. White’s chemistry class, but Walt empowers and trains him. According to the Corporate Executive Board’s latest Quarterly Global Labor Market Survey of more than 18,500 employees, compensation and respect rank in the top five reasons workers are attracted to a company. The ninth-most-important factor for employees in the CEB survey is their organization’s commitment to ethics and integrity. Here, of course, Walt fails spectacularly. He makes Jesse murder on his behalf, allows Jesse’s girlfriend to fatally overdose, and poisons the son of Jesse’s subsequent girlfriend. Sure, he aids Jesse’s career development, but he’s a cancer on his soul, which no doubt will play a role in Walt’s seemingly inevitable demise.

Most important, Walt lacks humility, which Built to Last author Jim Collins argues is an essential quality, along with determination, for truly great leadership. Walt may have an iron will, but he’s megalomaniacal. In season 4, Walt corrects his Drug Enforcement Agency brother-in-law on a fine point of meth making, putting him onto his trail. As Mike admonishes him in season 5, “You and your pride and your ego! ... If you’d known your place, we’d all be fine right now!” It’s the last thing Mike says before Walt kills him.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Gilligan says, “[Walt] is fantastic at deluding himself.” And a survey of the 75 members of the advisory council to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business said that self-awareness was the top quality recommended for leaders to develop. Without understanding their own inclinations — and how they are viewed by colleagues — executives don’t evolve. Walt is entirely lacking in self-awareness. Over the course of the series, he’s evolved as a businessman, but he’s turned into a sociopath in both his personal and professional lives. He’s shed basic empathy and has no idea how much his colleagues and wife loathe him.

Gilligan was inspired to create Walt after joking darkly with another TV writer during a lean period that they ought to start making meth. In his book Difficult Men, Brett Martin reports that Gilligan “was known as a good man to work for — someone who managed to balance the vision and microscopic control of the most autocratic showrunner with the open and supportive spirit of the most relaxed. He was a firm believer in collaboration.” In Gilligan’s writers’ room, Martin explains, “all writers were equal.” As a boss, Gilligan has instituted a style of leadership very unlike that of his antihero’s.

Given Walt’s blindness to his own faults, it’s hard to believe he’ll survive the end of the series. If his criminal enterprise were listed on Nasdaq, now might be a good time to sell. The respect he reluctantly shows Jesse is no match for the brutality he has forced on him. For Walt, being ruthless isn’t terribly smart.


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