Charismatic or manipulator? Leadership on Tv

Queens, politicians and bosses: some of the most popular main characters from blockbuster TV series

Charismatic or manipulator? Leadership on Tv

Any TV series inevitably has its leader. Any script for a television program includes a charismatic leading character. He/she is the one who takes decisions, leads the team, takes responsibilities for his/her own actions and acts as a model for the other characters, for bad or good.

Looking through heroic characters and ambivalent figures, we selected the leaders from the most popular TV series recently or currently on show. These characters well illustrate the memorable statement made by the sociologist Simon Sinek during the TED Talk 2009: «Only leaders can inspire us. We follow the people who lead us not because we have to but because we want to».

the-walking-deadThe Walking Dead: Rick the top dog
In The Walking Dead, the TV series based on the comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Rick Grimes is the leading figure within a group of people who survived a zombie apocalypse that devastated the earth. Rick is cunning and charismatic, hence a natural born leader. A former police-officer, he is knowledgeable about weapons, hand-to-hand combat and has a strong attitude for hierarchy and duty.

Throughout the seasons, he acquires bigger responsibilities within the group of survivors until he becomes the community leader. At the same time, however, due to the extreme and harsh life, he progressively becomes ruthless. This cold-bloodiness makes him less human on one side but more respected by the group and feared by the enemies on the other side. Rick’s leadership is boosted by his top dog aptitude, his strong sense of belonging to a team. He is often seen encouraging his mates not to act alone or out of personal interest.

game-of-thrones-daenerys-targaryen-emilia-clarkeGames of Thrones: Daenerys, the challenging leader
The mother of dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, is the female leader par excellence in the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, so that she is often regarded as a feminist model. Originally a fragile and passive person, she becomes strong and determined after the first seasons. As the queen of Meereen, a town she conquered in the Eastern Continent, she becomes skilful to turn difficulties into opportunities without forgetting to pay attention to her people’s needs. She is often seen holding conversations with advisors and local representatives and her open attitude is reflected in the choice to hire Tyron Lannister as strategy planner.

Daenerys’ leadership is based on respect and her capacity to act as an exemplar. This happens for instance when she decides to lock up her dragons, Rhaegal and Viserion, which have become too aggressive to be left free. A painful decision she takes to protect the people of Meereen, and which shows clearly that Daenerys is a generous leader who never sets her own needs above those of the community.

house-of-cardsHouse of Cards: the manipulative leader
Frank Underwood is the manipulative and diabolic leader of the American TV series House of Cards – the plots for power. The series was produced by Beau Willimon and is based on the novel by Michael Dobbs. Frank, interpreted by Kevin Spacey, is an ambitious congressman from the Fifth District of South Carolina; he wants to make a career and is willing to do anything to become Secretary of State. For his political brightness, Frank is feared and respected by colleagues and enemies.

Emblematic of Frank’s ambition is the speech he makes at the beginning of the fourth season: «People say we have the leaders we deserve. Well, this is what I think America deserves. A leader who isn’t scared of looking at you in the eyes and saying what he thinks. I believe putting people first is the priority. I believe in putting America back on track. I believe in open doors. And I am willing to work with both sides so that we all get what we want. People say we have the leaders we deserve? I believe America deserves Frank Underwood. And in your heart, you know that I am right».

the-crownThe Crown: Elizabeth, the quiet leader balancing duty and feelings
An endless balance between feelings and duty. This is the life of Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, one of the most successful series shown on Netflix in 2016. Elizabeth is initially a fragile and quiet figure. First obscured by the cumbersome presence of her father and then by that of the Prime Minister, she gradually gains self-confidence. She understands the importance of the crown and finds out what it means to be the Head of the Church of England. As a leader, she learns to recognise what she has to do, how to perform, and what is right and wrong. She will also realize how important is to stay silent in certain circumstances, «the hardest work of all», as she acknowledges during the series.

ciro-di-marzio-genny-savastanoGomorra: Ciro, the power-hungry leader
Ciro Di Marzio is the power-hungry leader from the Gomorra series, based on the best-seller by Roberto Saviano. Grown in the criminal context of Naples, he is a strong-willed, scornful and cunning man: since he was a child he had the right aptitude to run the Camorra clan business. His leadership skills are immediately appreciated by don Pietro Savastano, who regards him as his right arm. Ciro, however, is self-thinking and mad for power, so, after the boss is arrested, he becomes ruthless. He works in the shadow to bring the clan members to fight a cruel war.

Ciro aims to become the head of the clan and replace Genny, the son of Savastano, and he is determined to do anything to achieve this goal. Traitor and man of camorra, Ciro doesn’t rely on the old mentality but chooses the ruthless and reckless ambition typical of criminal selfishness. He is a true leader in the way he is capable to make strategic alliances. A clear example is the creation of an association between camorra people promoted by him in order to manage the splitting up of land and money.

breaking-bad-heisenbergBreaking Bad: Walt, the obscure and charismatic leader
Breaking Bad – Collateral Damage is a US TV series created by Vince Gilligan and released in 2008. The leadership role of the main character, Walter Hartwell White, is the outcome of the evolution of his split personality: he has a submissive, almost indulgent side and a resentful and cruel one. The series starts showing Walt as a professor unable to get respect from his students despite being a brilliant chemist. He has no control of the class and he is reputed an incompetent teacher.

During the first season, Walt starts producing methamphetamine in order to get money to pay for medical treatments. In fact, he learns he has terminal cancer and he doesn’t have money to access chemotherapy. So, he makes close alliances with the organized crime. In this ruthless context, Walt’s personality changes dramatically. In the last season, his obscure side prevails: the submissive professor becomes a boss of narco-traffic and exploits his intelligence to intimidate his subordinates. Despite the cruelty shown in several episodes, Walt’s redemption comes in the end: he sacrifices himself to save his assistant Jesse during the final battle against the White Supremacy band.

bf407974cdc55011bf7a91aa8c9fa1eeLost: Jack, the rational mediator
Lost is an American TV series created by J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber in 2004. The series kept the viewers on the edge of their seats because of the intrigues and the battles for survival engaged by a group of castaways in a deserted island. The undisputable leader of the show is doctor Jack Shephard, former spine neuro-surgeon, who becomes the reference figure for the survivors of the Oceanic 815 flight.

Jack’s leadership is based on his mediation skills rather than authority. Simply through talking he manages to release tensions and solve quarrels among the survivors in several circumstances. Thanks to this problem-solving skill, Jack manages to deal with the crisis and plans various rescue actions. His other main feature is the strong sense of responsibility: after the escape from the island, which takes place in one of the last seasons, he suffers from a nervous breakdown because he is unable to save all the castaways.

(Translated by Cecilia Braghin)


Diana Cavalcoli

Diana Cavalcoli Laureata in Lettere, si specializza in Cultura e storia del sistema editoriale all’Università degli studi di Milano. Frequenta il Master in giornalismo Walter Tobagi ed è iscritta all’Ordine dei Giornalisti dal 2015. Ha lavorato per Adnkronos a Milano e attualmente scrive per il Corriere della Sera occupandosi di lavoro, startup e innovazione