Breaking Bad’s Management Lessons

Breaking Bad

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Ben Wasserstein for Bloomberg Businessweek. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photograph by Everett Collection

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“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.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

To read Ben’s other articles, please click here.

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