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The Leadership Challenge

Assessment 1 Case-based Project

MBA Energy Management

Assessment 1: Walter White from Breaking Bad

The character that I choose is Walter White from the television series Breaking Bad. The
story is based on Walter, and how his decisions and the situations he faces, make him into
a drug dealer. At the beginning of the story, he works as a chemistry professor at the
University of Albuquerque, Texas, and, also, to sustain his family he has a job in a carwash.
He is frustrated because in the past his work on the field of crystallography contributed to a
research awarded with the Nobel Prize. Then, he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer
and he realizes with a disabled son (Walter Jr.) and a pregnant wife (Skyler) he needs to do
something to ensure the well-being of his family.
Next, he accepts to accompany his brother-in-law which is a Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) agent to a raid of a drug dealer house used to make methamphetamine
and, in this event, he saw escaping one of his students from the house. With thinking in no
other option, he searches and finds his student, Jesse Pinkman, to propose him a business.
Walter is going to “cook” the drug and Jesse is going to sell the product, seeing an easy way
to gain money to guaranty a better future for his family when he was gone.
The character of Walter White has a lot of traits of a leader in his personality. The most
notorious is his intelligence, but also, he is very conservative and shy person. Plato identified
aspects of intelligence and personality that were important for leadership, including courage,
magnificence (i.e. having perseverance and fortitude), apprehension (i.e. referring to
learning, perception, or intelligence) and ready powers of acquisition (i.e. wise, clever)
(Bryman, et al. 2011). Walter presents a lot of this individual characteristics and because of
this, he is able to get through a lot of life – or – dead situations by showing situational stability.
But the trait I want to highlight is his intelligence. With his great knowledge in chemistry, he
is capable to start the "business" of drugs, which is really successful due to its purity. And
because intelligence is usually defined as the ability to learn and the cognitive demands
require of leaders in terms of pattern recognition, information retention, causal reasoning
(Bryman, et al, 2011), it is absolutely understandable that the intelligence of Walter White
guesses his effectiveness to reach his personal goals throughout the series and also, I can
realize that to gain his knowledge he had to be involved in a process to improve his
understanding of chemistry.
The leadership of Walter White was a result of situations which were a great influence and
forced his behaviour to change, which is very common in particular situations (Bryman, et
al, 2011), and make they traits be expressed. According to Plato, there are two major
domains that can predict leadership, and those are ability and personality. The ability, in this
case, is the intelligence, explained above. General intelligence reflects the ability to learn,
to abstract and to process information, and is the single most important predictor of work
success (Bryman, et al, 2011). But when it´s about of personality, there are five factors: (1)
Neuroticism, (2) Extraversion, (3) Openness, (4) Agreeableness and (5) Conscientiousness,
all of them noticeable in Walter. First, extraversion, which is theoretically the most important
factor predictor of leadership, is being active and adventurous, gregariousness and
assertiveness. Second, openness, including imagination, open to emotions, curiosity, and
unconventionality. This factor is an important antecedent of leadership because allow
leaders forward-thinking and visionary. Third, conscientiousness, including goal orientations
and self-confidence is another important factor successful leaders. Fourth, agreeableness,
which includes being trustful of others, modest, and compassionate. Leaders should be nice
The Leadership Challenge
Assessment 1 Case-based Project
MBA Energy Management

and empathetic. And fifth, neuroticism, which refers to anxiety, demonstration of anger, and
vulnerability. Theoretically, leaders should have low levels of neuroticism (Bryman, et al.
2011). All the “Big five factors” are present in greater or lesser extent in the character. Walter
presents extraversion for the simple fact to venturing in the drug business to make “easy
money”. Also, he shows being active to find the compounds of his product or to start selling
it. Even though the character seems to be openness, he is always helping Jesse in many
parts of the story just to reach his personal goals. But I must say that he is a very imaginative
and unconventional character, as we can see how he solve the problems at the end of the
TV program. He demonstrates a lot of conscientiousness and I think is the more expressed
factor of his personality because in one way or another he gets what he wants in every
situation. About agreeableness, is what he needs more of the five factors. He is not so
empathetic or nice with the people who are around him because he sees people only like
tools that can help him in different situations. And the last and one important factor of
Walter´s personality is neuroticism. The fear and anger as pivotal roles, and with the
frustration of a meaningless life, lead to him into this transformation from a family guy to a
drug kingpin (Gill, 2006).
To address the theories of Walter's leadership, I will explain his behaviour with two; The
theory of servant leadership and transactional leadership, in a combination of both. At the
beginning of the television program, his motivation was his family. With his home wife
pregnant without work and his disabled son, with a lot of bills to pay, his big concern was
when he was gone, how his family was going to survive. With his desire to serve the needs
of other people is usually the reason why leaders emerge. Great leaders serve other,
according to the theory of “servant leadership”. Servant leadership entails strong values:
servant leaders take on leadership roles because they want to serve others. And people
follow servant leaders because they trust them (Gill, 2006).
Then, when he became more powerful in the drug world he changes to a total transactional
leadership which was necessary to reach his new personal goals: more money and more
power. (we are going to talk about power in the next part). Transactional leadership refers
to the bulk of leadership models, which focus on the exchanges that occur between leaders
(Walter White) and their followers (Jesse Pinkman). Transactional leaders exchange things
of value with followers to advance their own and their followers’ agendas (Kuhnert, 1994).
Transactional leaders are influential because it is in the best interest of followers for them to
do what the leader wants (Kuhnert & Lewis, 1987). There are two factors which can explain
this theory, contingent reward, and management-by-exception. Contingent reward is the first
of two transactional leadership factors. It is an exchange process between leaders and
followers in which effort by followers is exchanged for specified rewards. With this kind of
leadership, the leader tries to obtain agreement from followers on what must be done and
what the payoffs will be for the people doing it. The second factor is management-by-
exception. It is leadership that involves corrective criticism, negative feedback, and negative
reinforcement. In essence, is using negative reinforcement patterns (Northouse, 2016).
Walter used transactional leadership with Jesse because he rewarded him with money,
which was a specific incentive, to get an agreement. However, Walter also needed Jesse to
help him enter the world of drugs and establish the right contacts to start the business.
Transactional leadership occurs when one person takes the initiative in making contact with
others for the purpose of an exchange of valued things (Burns, 1978).
The Leadership Challenge
Assessment 1 Case-based Project
MBA Energy Management

The concept of power is related to leadership because it is part of the influence process.
Power is the capacity or potential to influence. People have power when they have the ability
to affect others’ beliefs, attitudes, and courses of action. Power is conceptualized as a tool
that leaders use to achieve their own ends (Northouse, 2016). The power of leadership lies
not only in recognizing that not all human influences are necessarily coercive and
exploitative, that not all transactions among persons are mechanical, impersonal ephemeral.
It lies in seeing that the most powerful influences consist of deeply human relationships in
which two or more persons engage with one another. The two essentials of power are motive
and resource. The two are interrelated. We all have the motives to do things we do not have
the resources to do (Burns, 1978). Walter White in several events throughout the television
series denotes some kind of link with Jesse, trying to help him with his drug addiction and
taking a kind of father role. But this seems to happen in certain events when Walter needs
Jesse again to achieve another goal. Only at the end of the television series, when Walter
lost everything, did he make a sacrifice for Jesse to free him from a drug cartel that held him
Coercive power is one of the specific kinds of power available to leaders. Coercion involves
the use of force to effect change. To coerce means to influence others to do something
against their will and may include manipulating penalties and rewards in their work
environment. Coercion often involves the use of threats, punishment, and negative reward
schedules. Leaders who use coercion are interested in their own goals and seldom are
interested in the wants and needs of followers. Using coercion runs counter to working with
followers to achieve a common goal (Northouse, 2016). Walter uses coercive power with
Jesse to influence him many times during the television series. For example, when Jesse
wanted to leave the business and leave with his girlfriend, Walter let her die with his vomit
as a punishment and a lesson for Jesse, showing him that nothing would stand in his way.
With Walter White, we can see the shadow side of leadership. A great man, with many great
personal qualities such as intelligence, becoming an unstoppable ambitious man seeking to
gain power and recognition. Many personal qualities and forces are indispensable for great
leadership. Ambition is the most compulsive and integral. Without ambition, the pursuit of
distinction would never prevail. Ambition is the motive power (Margach, 1979). The clinical
paradigm can help us understand why people react in certain ways, explaining a good deal
of seemingly irrational leadership behaviours. The clinical paradigm is based on the
following three premises (Bryman, et al. 2011):
1. All human behaviour, no matter how irrational it appears, has a rationale.
2. Human behaviour is largely determined by unconscious forces.
3. We are all product of our past.
To unite the three premises with Walter White, we need to understand that (1) Walter was
a great intelligent and ambitious man but with a lot of frustration, with two pathetic jobs to
support his family and without enough money to pay the bills, then when he discovers that
has terminal cancer; his disturbance and need to ensure the economic future of his family
increases; (2) his ambition to be recognized and to think that his life had no meaning and
(3) his regret for having left a wealthy girl whom he loved for feeling inferior. These things
together explain the illogical behaviour of Walter White's leadership.
The Leadership Challenge
Assessment 1 Case-based Project
MBA Energy Management

To finish this essay, I would like to quote Walter White, a quote who show how not only
power but the dark side of power changed him: “I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger!
A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!'”
Number of words: 1925
Bryman, A. (2011). The SAGE handbook of leadership. London [u.a.]: Sage Publ.
Burns, J. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row.
Gill, R. (2006). Theory and practice of leadership. Los Angeles, Calif. [u.a.]: SAGE.
Margach, J. (1979). The anatomy of power. London: W.H. Allen.
Northouse, P. (2016). Leadership. Los Angeles [etc.]: SAGE Publications.