Course 4: What We Can Learn From “The Wire”


I am not the first to say it.  I am by many exponential factors of a very large number not the first person to think it: The Wire is the greatest television show ever made.  Possibly one of the greatest works of art.  Ever.

Wow – it isn’t often that I find myself saying something so utterly “un-gray”, so absolute!  Most of my work in leadership involves avoiding absolutes and navigating the gray spaces of convergence – convergence of people, perspectives, ideas, problems.  But I feel comfortable making this statement – and I don’t think I’m alone in this sentiment!

Slight tangent: by what metric do I base this assertion?  I’ll use the lens of “life imitating art” as my basis.  I can’t begin to count the number of times I found myself in the thick of a situation (anywhere, in any context) and said to myself: “This is just like what happened on The Wire!”  I can’t think of any other work of art that has so convincingly peeled back the layers of society – public, private, personal, professional – to reveal deeper undercurrents that both bind and divide us.

If you’ve watched it, you know what I mean.  If you haven’t…I am jealous of what awaits you!  A first-time foray into this incredible world – a constructed world, no doubt – fictitious.  But no less true for it.

Our good fortune in Leadership School 2.0 is that, at its heart, The Wire is an exploration of the pressures, opportunities, challenges, and failures of leadership across all kinds of organizations and social strata.  That is why Course 4 has such a limited focus, if you will; to be the best, we must learn from the best!

Stew Friedman said so in a terrific, quick post back in 2008.  You could spend all day (week?) putting together a bibliography of blogs, books, articles, talks, dissertations – even college courses – on the show.  The Wikipedia page currently has 132 references cited – only?

Okay – point made.  I mean to be purposefully brief for the rest of this post.  I will not engage in any “spoiler alert” game-playing!  My urgent recommendation is for you to watch the show before reading anything about it (ahem – this post being an exception!) to be able to step into that world with a mind free of bias (sorry if my words above have already tainted your perspective!).

It is important to know that the show has very realistic violence, raw language, and other adult content that in part make it so difficult to shake.  This kind of content might unfortunately dissuade some from watching – totally understandable.  Personally, I abhor violence on television, but this is different: this is chronicling something tragically real.  Something to consider.

Course 4 requires a leadership framework we can use to support our analysis.  There are many to choose from; I like the five identified by Michael Fullan in his terrific book Leading in a Culture of Change: “…leaders will increase their effectiveness if they continually work on the five components of leadership – if they pursue moral purpose, understand the change process, develop relationships, foster knowledge building, and strive for coherence – with energy, enthusiasm, and hopefulness” (p.11). 

It is no surprise that Fullan draws on the ideas of Ronald Heifetz in exploring the realm of adaptive leadership – watch this brief clip of Heifetz discussing the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges to further expand our thinking on what leaders need to do to lead – as opposed to simply manage homeostasis. 

Now we’re ready to watch The Wire – or, in my case, re-visit it with a fresh lens. 

Questions to consider for Course 4:

1) Pick at least one leader from each season of the show and give them a report card on each of Fullan’s domains.  Who comes out ahead of the field?

2) Who are the leaders that take on adaptive challenges – and who are the ones who only consider technical problems?

3) Consider how different leaders on the show deal with loss and failure – do they learn and grow, or stick with what they know?

4) What are the organizational consequences we see when leaders don’t adopt an adaptive mindset?  Give examples.

5) How do different leaders on the show relate to their adversaries?  What outcomes result based on those relationships?

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