Management lessons from ‘The Walking Dead’

In the AMC television series The Walking Dead, all styles of management are represented. Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead, an AMC series now its seventh season, is currently enjoying a success similar to that of Game of Thrones. And this despite a plot that’s typical enough in its genre – the dead turn into zombies and roam hunting for their preferred delicacy, the living, for whom they search relentlessly. While it doesn’t promise much more than blood-soaked entertainment, there’s more there, particularly for those interested in, of all things, management. In particular, the structure and script present the characters with a number of challenges that illuminate the complexity of a wide range of management modes. The Walking Dead may thus be looked at a playful way to approach some of the essential notions on management.

Organisations, resources, competition, skills

The Walking Dead universe is post-apocalyptic: the world has been brought down to heaps of ruins and forests, all infested with the walking dead.

Soon diverse groups of survivors gather through chance meetings. Their environment is as hostile as it is hypercompetitive: as nothing is produced any more, all resources (food, medicine, shelters) are limited, and thus fiercely coveted. Nothing can be taken as granted: at one point some survivors tried establish themselves in a former jail deemed to be safer, but that was without taking into account pointed interest from other, less scrupulous groups of survivors.

In fact, each one of these clans operate as an organisation, sharing resources (whether human or material), work and capital. Just like an enterprise, they are the assemblage of a number of interdependent individuals, all working towards a shared goal.

But the parallels don’t end there: as is the case with all firms whose survival requires searching for new markets (customers being free and thus volatile), groups of survivors must draw up strategies, try to think differently than their competitors to unearth potential niches. They have to review the tasks of their members according to their skills and the needs of the moment and promote promising individuals – Carol, a 50-year-old mother, moves from the kitchen galley to armed action when she proves to be a gifted fighter – and manage their resources and stocks sparingly. And when you talk about a business, there are management, leadership and structure issues.

From participative to directive management

To put it in a nutshell, management is “the way or art of leading an organisation, to manage it, to plan for its development, and to control it” (Raymond-Alain Thiétard). This is precisely what The Walking Dead shows us as the seasons unfold, ranging from “management by terror” to “very vertical but benevolent management”, and even up to an advanced form of participative management, where decisions are made by show of hands. All major trends are to be found in the series.

A charismatic leader: Rick

Rick Grimes, the charismatic leader. Allociné/Gene Page/AMC

The lead character Rick is the perfect example of the classic definition of what a leader is, according to David Rendall: the members of the group follow him out of their free will. He does not derive any glory or preferential treatment from his position. He proposes a better world (the big vision); he comes from the group he leads and his role emerged naturally more than his having sought it. He is not always right, but is credible and is known to be sincere. His management style is rather democratic, with everyone having their say, without too much hierarchy exercised.

The paternalistic Governor

Another type of leader, one who does not suffer contradiction is the Governor. In him we see all the essential codes of paternalism: he takes great care of the members of his community by ensuring them comfort, while at the same time keeping them far from decisions, and even more so as regards his actions – only a few men enjoy the privilege of being privy to his secrets. Strategy and laws come from him only. He takes on all responsibilities, carefully managing resources and imposing a lifestyle, and is capable of cracking down when needed.

Negan and management by terror

Negan, the manager as tyrant. Allociné/Gene Page/AMC

Falsely kind, Negan reigns over his group by the terror he inspires among them. He’s a true tyrant, enjoying a cult of personality – one must swear allegiance to him by denying one’s very existence, declaring “I am Negan”. He’s omnipotent and unpredictable, and one of the signatures of his management style includes applying ritual punishments and humiliations in public.

Negan’s clan rules its sector thanks to its potential for harm, and thus no longer needs to produce or search for the resources: it just dominates other groups by levying as much as half of what they possess. In return, they can continue to operate independently, with a semblance of autonomy. While the level of fear is less than those within Negan’s group, they have become an integral part of the Negan galaxy. Naturally, this mode of acquisition bears some resemblance to those that prevail in the current economic world…

From the family business to the joint venture

A few family structures also exist – this is the case of Maggie’s family – but, unable to survive and remain self-sufficient in such a hostile environment, they are quickly absorbed by larger organisations. However, the joint venture remains the most common mode for two groups of survivors to come together: each retains its autonomy and identity, but both agrees on how to collaborate to reach a shared goal. Agreements are thus wisely negotiated and entered into, but not always abided by…

As a matter of fact, other similarities could also be easily found between The Walking Dead and the way enterprises operate and what their management styles are – power and counter-power, team management, etc. But one would need an in-depth course to be able to explore them, and this is just a diverting television series about a zombie-plagued world, after all.

This article was originally published in French

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