Leadership Lessons from Don Draper, Tony Soprano and Other TV Dads

Running a family is a lot like running a business. You can learn a lot from these TV fathers who know best.
June 13, 2013

Leading your employees has a lot in common with being a parent—both on the days you’re proud of your team’s initiative and achievements, and on the ones you feel like you’re babysitting a bunch of fractious 4-year-olds. In the spirit of Father’s Day, here are some leadership do’s and don’ts from famous TV dads.

Do

Divide and conquer. You can learn a lot from Mitch and Cameron, the gay dads on Modern Family, if you run your company with a business partner. To avoid stepping on each other’s toes, the dads split the parenting duties between breadwinning and childrearing, with each having his own domain. Splitting up responsibilities is a more efficient way to get things done in a partnership, instead of everyone having a hand in everything. 

Lead with enthusiasm. Modern Family’s dad Phil Dunphy has plenty of wacky ideas, from concocting crazy inventions with his son to tightrope-walking to a cross-country family RV trip. Phil’s passions don’t always pan out, and his family is often less than encouraging, but that doesn’t dim his enthusiasm. If you’re the leader, lead—and don’t worry about looking “uncool” or being popular.

Set high standards. Cliff Huxtable of The Cosby Show didn’t cut his large brood any slack. Of course, high standards for ethics, behavior and achievement were what helped Cliff and his wife, Claire, attain their upscale lifestyle. If you hate confrontation, letting employees coast with less-than-acceptable work and behavior may seem like the easy way out, but it will make your life harder in the end. Hold your team to high standards and help them achieve what you know they’re capable of.

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Find the work-life balance. The Brady Bunch’s Mike Brady might have been the original work-at-home pioneer. In his home office, the architect not only caught up on work, but also held heart-to-heart talks with his blended brood of six. But as we all know, work-life balance can be tricky, as Mike learned when he took his family along on a business trip to show a client (an amusement park) some architectural plans. In the excitement of visiting the park, daughter Jan lost the plans Mike had entrusted to her. Fortunately, teamwork made it all right again as the family pulled together to help Mike achieve his goal.

Show your human side. Leaders don’t have to be perfect, as Dan Conner of Roseanne illustrates. Dan struggled to provide for his family, and was proud to achieve his dream of opening his own motorcycle repair shop. But when the economy crashed, the shop did too. It was a painful journey, but along the way Dan let his kids in on how much he wanted to succeed, how hard he tried and how heartbroken he was. While his business failed, Dan succeeded in showing his family what it means to go after what you want. Your team will be inspired if you share your business dreams as well as your struggles.

Don’t

Be a black cloud. Shoe salesman Al Bundy of Married With Children is henpecked by his wife and disrespected by his kids. His only joys are bowling, watching TV and unleashing a stream of negativity on everyone who comes within earshot. With this approach to leadership, it’s no wonder Al wasn’t exactly wearing the pants in the family. Yes, even entrepreneurs get discouraged sometimes, but when you’re in charge, you can’t share your negativity or you’ll infect the rest of the team. Find a way to put on a happy face.

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Shirk responsibility. The Simpsons patriarch Homer Simpson is a master at evading responsibility, with his life goal to gobble donuts while doing the bare minimum needed not to get fired from his job at the nuclear power plant. It’s funny on this cartoon TV sitcom, but not so much in real life. Instead of taking responsibility for problems in the business, too many entrepreneurs blame failures on their team, the competition, the economy … the list goes on. Always remember when you’re the boss, the buck stops with you—so step up to the plate.

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Fail to keep up with the times. Don Draper of Mad Men was a hot young entrepreneur in the 1950s, but in 1968 and now heading his own ad agency, he’s rapidly becoming an old fogey. Out of touch with his kids, his young employees and the times, Don no longer has the “magic touch” at work: Clients seeking to tap into the ‘60s zeitgeist are rejecting his advertising ideas. It may be comforting to do things the way you’ve always done them, but if you don’t learn new things and open yourself to new ideas, your business will suffer.

Ignore ethics. Sometimes it’s tempting to throw ethical considerations aside for a tantalizing business opportunity. On The Sopranos, Mob boss Tony Soprano convinced himself that every violent act he committed had a noble purpose: to give his family a better life. But at the series’ end, both his Mafia empire and his family were slipping out of his control. We may never know what happened to Tony, but we all know in our heart of hearts that doing the right thing matters—not just in business, but in life.

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