How to work with difficult leaders

I recently read Difficult Men by Brett Martin.

Martin details the rise of showrunners like David Chase (The Sopranos) David Simon (The Wire) Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) David Milch (Deadwood) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad).

The book creates an image of the showrunner: the possibly unstable writer in charge of every detail of a massive artistic commercial enterprise. As one TV veteran remarks: “This isn’t like publishing some lunatic’s novel or letting him direct a movie. This is handing a lunatic a division of General Motors.”

The behaviours of these very talented showrunners are documented in great detail. David Milch’s addictions to gambling and cocaine – Milch gave up on scripts altogether and extemporaneously dictated lines to bemused actors when not randomly handing out $100 bills, urinating out of windows or assembling teams of young, attractive women – vestal virgins – to assist his creative processes.

Or David Chase, after the frustration of writing on others’ network shows for years, ran The Sopranos with Tony as his role model as a leader. He would refuse to remove a comma from his script.

Vince Gilligan the creator of Breaking Bad is the only showrunner profiled who emerges as a team player. He was the one wiling to be civil in the writers’ room and allow others to display their talents without fear of overshadowing and raising the ire of the boss.

When I was reading the book I couldn’t help but wonder: is this what it takes to lead and succeed in the industry? Or are these old, grumpy men the last of a breed of leaders in the industry? And if you work with one of these leaders, how do you manage them?

As the facilitator of leadership labs for the film and television industry, here are three thoughts on being a follower to a difficult leader in our industry.

Know their leadership style

When you are working with some one who is challenging, calm is the watchword. For instance if someone is micro managing your work, this can be incredibly de-moralizing. In this case, it is important to realize the boss’ motivation is to be in control. Perhaps the person has just been promoted and is anxious about doing a great job or a manager who has a completely new staff and is very nervous about mistakes. This calls for empathy on your part – difficult but important.

Appreciate the vision

Make it your business to understand the larger vision of the leader. For instance, the environment for the writers’ room on The Shield was quite relaxed. There was an understanding that the series was content for selling detergent and Budweiser. People still did great work, but the showrunner Ryan had a more laissez faire attitude. On The Wire, social activism was at the core of the series. If you didn’t buy into the vision and its intensity, it could be an uncomfortable place to be.

Understand the expectations

On some shows, the expectation is very clear: you are there to serve the creator of the series, no matter how strong and clear your own writing voice happens to be. Matthew Weiner remembers being driven crazy by the idea that no one would know how great his writing was on The Sopranos. He acknowledged that he was working for David Chase, in David’s brain, with David’s characters and trying to please David.

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Mark your calendars

December 6

I will be facilitating a workshop on ‘Dealing with Difficult People‘ in Toronto, Canada

January 16-18

I will also be conducting a leadership lab in Toronto, Canada. If you’re interested and are a member of the DGC, get in touch with Cristy Becker.

January 24

From Start to Screen pitching workshop in London, UK

If you’re interested in a leadership lab or training session, get in touch with me.

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