“Walking Dead” Ethics: The Worst Leader Ever

Follow this leader at your peril...

Follow this leader at your peril…

The Walking Dead’s” resolution of the ethical dilemma facing Rick Grimes—give up a member of his group to be tortured by a deranged sadist, on the basis of a dubious promise by said deranged sadist not to attack Rick’s group with a superior force if he receives the sacrificed member as his torture-toy, or resolve to fight said superior force despite the likelihood of defeat—was consistent with what we know of Rick as a leader from past episodes. He is hopeless. With this crucial decision, however, he forged new ground in fecklessness, stupidity and incompetence even for him:

  • He made the wrong decision, deciding to turn over the sword-weilding Machonne as the Governor demanded;
  • He did not tell his group what his decision was;
  • He confided in the most untrustworthy member of the group, the cynical, homicidal Merle, because Rick knew he would have no compunction with executing such a twisted choice;
  • After doing so, Rick changed his mind, but not before Merle, being certain that Rick couldn’t follow through on his decision, went ahead and subdued Machonne on his own and began transporting her back to the Governor’s lair for the trade.

In the end, Machonne wasn’t handed over to the Governor, and Merle ended up dead, but that’s irrelevant here. “The Walking Dead,’ in addition to being a handy primer on how ethics evolves when civilization collapses and zombies outnumber human beings, is a tutorial on leadership do’s and don’ts. Sheriff Rick, who has been the leader of the central band of survivors from the start, is the George Constanza of leadership: to be successful, do the opposite of what Rick would do.

At this point, his group knows how inept their alleged leader is even when he isn’t being influenced by hallucinations of his dead wife. They know his judgment is poor; he doesn’t communicate his intentions or his decisions; he is swayed by whoever (or whatever) speaks to him last; and most of all, they know he can’t stick to his own decisions and almost never does. Such a leader is worse than no leader at all. The Governor is an infinitely more able leader. Unfortunately he is rotten to the core and insane, but the Governor, in his lucid moments, knows how to lead. In a zombie apocalypse, one would be far, far better off with the Governor than with bumbling Rick, even considering the not inconsiderable chance that he might choose to sacrifice you for a perceived advantage to himself or the group.

At the end of the episode, realizing that this latest episode showed him to be a total flop as a leader, the writers gave Rick an impassioned speech in which he announced to his group that he had been doing it all wrong, that dictatorship doesn’t work, that it was time for the group to become self-governing, a democracy. What an idiot. When the Governor attacks the prison, is Rick going to take a vote on the best defense tactics? In a true crisis, like, say, zombies taking over the world, one-leader rule is imperative. This is why even  the United States Constitution gives the President near dictatorial powers in wartime. Because Rick can’t handle the job and is so atrocious at leading, he has naturally concluded that it was the model that was at fault. No, the model was fine: he is at fault.

It has been fascinating to hear President Obama, who is a wretched leader for a legislative republic, to periodically make wistful statements about how he sometimes wishes he was a king or dictator, as if it is the American system that doesn’t work. No, it can still work; it requires an executive who knows how to broker deals, be consistent, have some guts, and do more than just make speeches and blame everyone else for his failures, that’s all. Similarly, progressive journalists and historians have been recycling the theories from the Carter years about how the Presidency is just too darn hard now, and how nobody can do the job. Yes, weak, ineffective leaders make leadership look hard, and even impossible. Skilled leaders—Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan and Clinton come to mind since the mid-20th Century—make leadership look, if not easy, achievable.*

A skilled, wise and benevolent leader can made any system look good, and a poor one will make the best system in existence look misbegotten. For decades, Josip Broz Tito managed to do the impossible as a Communist dictator of Yugoslavia, keeping his country from dissolving into civil war, and the Soviets from cracking down on his kinder, gentler brand of Marxism. He made a non-democratic system look good, and shortly after he died, Yugoslavia fell apart, with sages writing that the nation was “impossible to govern.” When authoritarian leaders fail, nations decide that democracy is the solution; when democracy fails, nations turn to dictators. Rick picked a particularly terrible time to sing the praises of consensus government, just as a war is about to begin. “No leader is better than one leader” appears to what he thinks he has learned,  and as usual, Rick’s reasoning is exactly backwards.

No leader is no worse than an incompetent leader who can’t make decisions or delegate authority to more competent deputies who can, because such a leader isn’t a leader, but only pretending to be one. Even a weak leader, however, is better than no leader at all, the exception perhaps being “The Walking Dead’s” Rick, who showed tonight that he is devoid of any leadership ability at whatsoever.

* I expect this comment to rankle some of you as a partisan tangent, but I don’t see it that way. At one mad point in last night’s episode, I briefly wondered if the show’s producers were making an intentional political analogy, but I know that’s pure confirmation bias on my part. Nonetheless, I stand by my analysis. This morning, almost 10 hours after I write this, Washington Post Editorial Editor Fred Hiatt, like most Post editors, a man who leans to the political left, made essentially the same point about Obama’s leadership in a somewhat gentler manner, without, of course, “The Walking Dead” backdrop. Just in case there’s any confusion, be assured that I would rather have Obama leading my band of survivors in a zombie apocalypse than Rick. We’d still all be doomed, but Obama would give better speeches.

32 thoughts on ““Walking Dead” Ethics: The Worst Leader Ever

  1. Herschel and Darryl both voiced protest to Rick. In front of each other. Time for loyal disloyalty and both oppose Rick and demand he back down from that decision, not recommend it. Demand it.

  2. Talking about “doing the opposite”… it would be difficult in view of recent cases to find a more egregious example than the DOJ.

    This Thursday, 28 March, at 9am in the US District Court, Washington DC, gay Army Lieutenant Dan Choi, Arabic Linguist, West Point Graduate and Iraq War Veteran, stands trial for past protests against the since repealed anti-gay military policy “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT).

    In 2010 Choi was dismissed from the US Army National Guard after coming out as gay on the Rachel Maddow TV show. He was then billed by the US Defense Department for $2,500 for failing to fulfil his military contract. Chio is refusing to pay.

    To protest against his dismissal, and against President Obama’s failure to push for the repeal of DADT, Choi handcuffed himself to the White House fence three times in 2010. These protests help force the issue of DADT up the political agenda at a time when the Oval Office and Congress were dragging their heels on repeal.

    Choi explained why he used direct action methods:

    “We knew that presidential leadership was critical to civil rights and military service. Our commander in chief finally led only after we used the same tactics of Alice Paul, the Suffragettes, African American civil rights protestors, and many other identity groups that have won their equality through sacrifice.”

    Three years after Choi’s handcuffing protests, the US Federal Attorney’s Office refuses to dismiss the charges against him. The prosecution is being pursued by Assistant US Attorney, Angela S. George.

    Generally, White House protestors are arrested and required to pay $100 fine to a municipal court, the equivalent of a parking ticket in the District of Columbia. Instead, in this case, the US Attorney’s Office is invoking a seldom-used federal level criminal charge called “Failure to Obey”.

    Lt Choi retorts:

    “The charge is baseless. It assumes traffic was blocked, but there is no traffic to block on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The main reason for this charge is to prevent me from re-joining the military, to paint me as simply disobedient. It prevents my rejoining (the military) in a vindictive waste of resources. I stand trial to assert my rights and the rights of all to be treated equally under the law.”

    The trial Judge, John M. Facciola, has already made a prima facie finding for “vindictive prosecution” in Lt. Choi’s case, prompting the prosecution to make legal history by pausing the trial for two years and embroiling Lt. Choi in a Writ of Mandamus fight.

    Until this trial, such a radical and rarely used writ has never been granted in the middle of criminal proceedings. The writ orders the trial judge not to hear evidence concerning the selective prosecution and political targeting of the defendant.

  3. I think it is just poor script writing. These last few shows are not creating any additional interest nor viewer empathy in the show or its main characters.

    • Well, its also an appeal to modem culture. We don’t like our heroes portraying heroic and good decisions. We like them being deeply conflicted and horribly flawed.

      So we don’t have to aspire to anything.

      • It’s drama as reality show. There is no guarantee that in a crisis of this magnitude, any of the survivors have leadership abilities or could develop them. But it’s hard to root for such a weak and flawed group. And without competent leadership, they should be doomed.

          • Well, to be fair, during season one he wasn’t a terrible leader. He made some bad calls but overall did ok.

            Season 2 he still held things together, made a few bad calls also.

            Not til this season does he really just allow caprice to rule the day.

            • He was never a good leader, though. He couldn’t delegate—he took everything on himself. His handling of the captured member of another group–kill him, no don’t, yes we should—was the same dithering we’ve seen this year. His one asset was that he was a nice guy, and decent, so people trusted him. Now he’s bitter, angry and losing it, so that’s gone. Frankly, I’m not sure a drama like this without a single admirable character is watchable.

      • I would think that the creative class would like us to think in that manner. To me the average American loves a good, straightforward, though not perfect, hero. I don’t know how Rick can redeem himself after his shenanigans in this last episode while the other characters have some strengths but lack significant leadership skills. One possibility for taking the helm, though, is Chad Coleman, of The Wire fame. He seems to stick to his principles and is faithful to his peeps. No more “overly flawed” leaders, please.

  4. This show was great in season 1 but is lack luster now. It occurs to me that it was sold as a show of grand scale, of global scale, and now it’s just a day-to-day drama of a small survivalist group. I believe the writers are writing these characters in a small vacuum where they’ve forgotten the bigger picture – the global picture – and the characters act in a bit of an unbelievable manner. Season 4 & 5 is getting a new show-runner. I hope the direction improves vastly – or I’ll be watching the remaining seasons once it’s all done and I can crank it out in a day.

    • I disagree that the show was sold as one of “global scale” as you mention it. From the beginning, it was billed as a TV adaptation of the graphic novel “Walking Dead” which solely focuses on Rick’s group and their attempts to survive the world. Though they do travel further than Georgia, you never get a real clear idea of the “global situation”. The creator, Robert Kirkman has created a story that is more a character study than a vast tale of humanity’s struggle with the undead. This is about Rick and his group. If you are interested in a larger scale zombie story, read Max Brooks’s excellent book, “World War Z”. It is far better than what I believe the upcoming Brad Pitt movie will be.

  5. Anyone who needs help on the ethics in the season finale need not read further. This is a summary of the season finale:

    1) Tyreese = not dumb
    2) Governor’s attack plan = dumb
    3) Hearing a M-2 .50 cal machine gun rocking against a masonry target = not dumb
    4) Rick’s defense plan = dumb
    5) Carl = dumb
    6) Martinez and other goon = dumb
    7) Andrea = still was dumb

    • Andrea, in fact, was too dumb to live. When denial-driven idealists keep looking for good in people after a thorough search has revealed nada, they do as much damage as evil doers, and Andrea is Exhibit A. How many people died because Andrea, who had the chance to eliminate a psychopath who was, as they say on “Criminal Minds,” devolving rapidly, “didn’t want anyone to die?”

  6. Now that I’ve seen the final episode, I take back my assessment that the Governor is a better leader than Rick. Gunning down 90% of your followers is just not good leadership at all.

  7. Herschel’s Ethics Quote:

    “You step outside, you risk your life. Take a drink of water, you risk your life. You don’t have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for.”

  8. Interesting thread. I’m catching up a bit behind the posts, but I agree that the leadership decisions (namely Rick’s) don’t seem likely to attract followers. I think the comic plays out the events differently, and perhaps in a way that makes Rick’s decision-making more believable (to an extent). Currently, I am conducting a research survey on what readers think of leadership in The Walking Dead. If any of you would like to participate, you can (anonymously) by going to http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/thewalkingdead.

      • Part of leadership is simply attracting followers…the actual decisions can be good, bad, crappy, or otherwise. It is hard for me to distinguish between the show and comic, but I think it is safe to say that in both presentations, Rick at least makes decisions, even if these decisions aren’t the best. He acts when others fail to (or don’t want to). This attracts followers, and makes him a leader.

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