4 Leadership Lessons From Negan, the Latest Villain on ‘The Walking Dead’

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When considering the most important thinkers in the study of organizational management, influencers such as Peter Drucker, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. are at the top of the list. But there’s a new practitioner whose mind-opening methodology delivers a wallop that will knock the old guard off of their thrones: Negan, a character on AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Negan was introduced in the final episode of the sixth season of The Walking Dead. He’s the leader of The Saviors, a group comprised of several hundred members who have survived a negative market cycle (zombie apocalypse) that has disrupted (infected or killed) most of the world’s citizens.

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The Saviors have avoided hostile takeover attempts (being consumed, literally, by the zombies) and have increased their market share (murdering and/or dominating other groups of survivors) by carefully adhering to Negan’s winning strategy, which is summarized by four key tenets:

1. To achieve employee buy-in of your vision for the organization, you must motivate your team with an enticing reward structure.

According to , a professor, author and owner of workplace consultancy the Quality of Life Laboratory, “employee buy-in is when employees are committed to the mission and/or goals of the company.”

To promote buy-in from team members, research has shown that reward programs can be effective, and Negan has developed an innovative one for The Saviors: if his team obeys his commands and follows his guidelines, Negan rewards them by not smashing their skulls in with Lucille, a baseball bat that’s wrapped in barbed wire.

While for most managers, intimidation with a deadly weapon may not be an option as a means of ensuring employee compliance (it would likely require approval from the C-suite), for Negan, it’s an imaginative solution that guarantees 100 percent support for his organizational vision.

2. To attract top talent, you must offer an appealing compensation package.

Rose Johnson, a business writer for the Houston Chronicle, that competitive compensation plays “an important role in a company’s ability to attract top talent.” Ronald Barba, the managing editor of Tech.co, that “a good overall benefits and compensation package can often signal that employers care for the well-being of an employee.”

The compensation that Negan extends to prospective members of The Saviors is clear, concise and convincing: “give me half of your (possessions) or I will kill you.”

When Negan presented this framework to Rick Grimes, the hero of The Walking Dead, it was part of an all-hands “career day” event for Rick’s group, who were being recruited (forced at gunpoint) to join The Saviors. With an eye for talent, Negan recognized the core competencies that Grimes and his group offered. Negan also demonstrated a concern for the newcomers’ well-being when he told Grimes that “I don’t want to kill you people: I want you to work for me and you can’t do that if you’re dead, now can you?”

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While he’d agree that his arrangement is a “mighty big nasty pill to swallow,” Negan would point out that for laser-focused go-getters, it’s an exciting opportunity for upward mobility in The Saviors’ management structure. For those who are on the fence, accepting his terms allows them to maintain their roles (living and breathing) and avoid getting RIF’d (being on the receiving end of Lucille).

3. To gain your team’s loyalty, give faltering members a second chance.

Public relations pro Sharon Zeev Poole that giving second chances to employees who have slipped up “means using mistakes as learning opportunities” with an “opportunity to improve.”

When Negan threatened Maggie (a member of Rick’s group) with Lucille, Maggie’s husband Glenn erupted in rage. He attacked Negan, but was quickly tackled by one of The Saviors.

Rather than kill Glenn, Negan gave him a pass. “Alright, listen: don’t any of you do that again,” said Negan to Rick’s group. “First one’s free. It’s an emotional moment.” And with a smile, he added, “I get it.”

Negan’s ability to empathize with Glenn’s fragile emotional state, put his new recruits at ease during a tense interaction and then seamlessly pivot to deliver a blast of leadership are hallmarks of a focused, effective manager (who also happens to be a sadistic psychopath).

4. To motivate your team, you must recognize and celebrate their achievements.

According to U.K.-based L&D magazine , “when it comes to motivating team members, offering praise and recognition for a job well done can be extremely powerful.”

As a savvy manager who demands maximum results, Negan recognizes the importance of praising the efforts of his team, as well as its new members.

When addressing Rick’s group after their capture, Negan explained that because the group had killed a number of Saviors in past skirmishes, Negan was forced to select and kill a group member kill in retaliation. “Which one of you gets the honor?” asked Negan, suggesting that the recipient of death-by-Lucille was worthy of his respect and admiration (which are distinctions that would certainly be meaningful to the selectee).

After smashing the unidentified member (the camera doesn’t reveal who was clubbed), Negan further compliments him/her by exclaiming “taking it like a champ!” Such effusive praise, especially when delivered in front of a team member’s contemporaries, is invaluable as a builder of long-term loyalty and strong job performance (assuming, of course, that the team member remains alive to express that loyalty and perform his/her job).

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Would mainstream organizational management gurus find Negan’s methods to be barbarous, dangerous and messy? Most likely, yes. But they can’t argue with his results.

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