“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.