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Zombies & Dragons

Zombies & Dragons

I'd like to take you back to the early Eighties. Specifically, Eighties TV. The stories of the rich and powerful. Dallas and Dynasty. The Ewings and the Carringtons. JR and Bobby. Blake and Alexis. The luxury. The trappings of power. The money. The women. The affairs. The decadence. 

Why are long-dead Eighties TV shows relevant to LinkedIn and the themes I blog about? The death of organisational culture? The decline of management thought?Failed change? The decadence of organisational life? And the irony, cynicism and sarcasm of the workplace?

Because, at the same time these shows were being made, management thought was experiencing a frenzy of newfound enthusiasm. The birth of the strong culture movement. A massive outpouring of promises made in the name of the high-tech way of life. A new era, new work organizations, a new man and woman. Huge profits, futuristic innovation, humane working environments, and happy, productive workers. 

We were shown images of utopia. Given promises of an organisational society without discontents. Shown a "you can have it all" world that fulfils dreams. And releases us from limited opportunity. All captured by TV through big hair, large shoulder pads, glittery dresses and Stetson hats. 

"So what", you might ask. I know we are all used to the seriousness of management and organisation being transmitted with numbers. Via statistics. Charts. Tables. Cognitive science. Organisational psychology. And other such serious scientific disciplines. What have Dallas and Dynasty got to do with all of this? 

We forget that organisations are collections of humans interacting with each other. And that human action and interaction have been captured by other disciplines during the centuries. Art, literature, drama, music. And TV shows. That reveal underlying, subconscious themes that concern us all.  

Long arc TV shows are the dominant art form of our age. They capture socio-cultural themes in the most revealing way. So, if Dallas and Dynasty captured the optimism and emerging decadence of strong cultural organisations, what do we have now? Have the promises of the Eighties come true?

Or have we seen the coming of a different age.  That was illustrated and predicted in the critical analysis of the strong culture movement. This research was dark. It contained apocalyptic visions. Warnings of tyranny, domination and oppression. Is that what we now experience? Let's have a look at the themes informing the most successful shows today. And see where we might be. 

Zombies. Hordes of undead zombies. Shuffling around in a mindless herd. Only motivated into action by random noise, light, movement. And food. Staying one step ahead of them, constantly vigilant, constantly on edge, close-knitted tribal groups.  

Theme 1 - Fear of a Meaningless Existence: The fear driving the character's decisions in The Walking Dead is not death. But becoming one of the undead. Inhumanly animated. With no purpose. No meaning. Killing anything that is alive and vibrant. Turning it into just one more member of the unthinking masses.

The characters fear that so much that they will lovingly plunge a knife into an ex-colleagues brain. To spare them such a horrific fate. The driving motivation is to escape and prevent the nihilistic existence of the undead zombie. To create something alive. Different. Something worth living for. Despite all the hopelessness surrounding them. 

Theme 2 - Reborn Tribalism: The characters develop a total and complete trust in each other. Knowing that they have each other's backs. No matter what. To gain the trust of group, you must prove that you can make good decisions in completely chaotic circumstances. That you will risk your own safety to help your friends. 

This trust has a dark companion. The total distrust of different groups. And their different ways of combating the dead. Ways that look, at first glance, to be more civil. More sophisticated. Better. But ultimately result in the same grisly end. Death and destruction. The loss of community. The end of hope. So, group gets pitted against group. And ultimately only the most adaptable survives. 

Theme 3 - Be Alert and Agile: The group's journey has no end. At every step and at every resting point, they must evaluate and reevaluate their surroundings. To be sure it is safe enough to rest. But knowing the safety is temporary. And illusory. 

That to stay ahead of the pack they must keep moving. Be quick and agile. Work out innovative ways to stay alive. More creative ways to kill the threats. By being wary of new threats and quickly adapting, the group survives. Standing still and assuming safety ensures death. 

To the north, undead winter walkers ready to kill everything in their path. Merciless and pitiless. To the south, a warrior queen with a slave army and might weapons of war. Internally, warring factions split the country apart. Rendering it impotent against these dual existential threats. 

Theme 1 - The End of Traditional Leadership: We are used to our leaders and heroes being virtuous. Having a noble countenance. Ethical motivations. Power coming with responsibility. Here, political ambition lays this all to waste. The most virtuous character is murdered in Act One. His son betrayed by his supposed allies. The whole house massacred. The only remnants lost, hidden, crippled, immature or exiled.  With virtue dead, the country is ruled by the ruthless. Willing to do anything to hold onto power. 

From the depths of this corrupt foulness, new and unexpected leaders and heroes arise. One is guilty of regicide. And incest. And adultery. Another is a misshapen, cynical dwarf who whores and drinks. Both do terrible things. Brought to the lowest of the low. And from the depths of their despair, they emerge changed. Ready to make a difference. To redeem themselves after they've finally seen the horrific reality of the world. 

Theme 2 - The Impotence of Planning: Numerous clans attempt to gain control of the kingdom. Some show great strategic skill. And tactical  excellence. Winning battle after battle. Finding ally after ally. Seemingly ready to win the kingdom. Just one step away. 

Then each gets betrayed. Unexpected events overcome them. Unseen shadows kill them. Supposed allies rebel. All the strategic and tactical decision-making undermined by complex and chaotic events over which they have no control. Or knowledge. Things they can't have hoped to predict. Or influence. Laying waste to all their talented planning.

Theme 3 -  The Unpredictability of Power: It is impossible to predict which characters will fall. The noblest get killed. The most ruthless get killed. Leaders get murdered. Innocent children get murdered. The most vicious characters have tender moments. Naive characters display unexpected ruthlessness. Even the littlest unpredictable action ripples into an unexpected future. 

Then there are the dragons. The most powerful creatures in the realm. To control them, you must show no fear. No hesitation. Show you are worthy.  Powerful, ruthless, predatory killing machines. You have no idea how they'll act. Take to you. Or rip you to shreds. To get the power and success you crave, you must dare to enter the Dragons Den. Or the Shark Tank

The behind-the-scenes deal breaker turned political powerhouse. Ruthlessness as success.   The cynical, sarcastic, manipulating Machiavellian as the central character. Explaining what he really thinks through the fourth wall. 

The Theme - The Rise of Machiavellian Leadership: It is a simple tale of the lust for power. The ruthless stab in the back of anyone who stands in your way. Sometimes figuratively. Sometimes literally. The idea that there is something noble in leadership is stripped away. With power comes no responsibility. 

The methods of ambitious leadership are revealed. Indirect communication. Promising one thing to the unsuspecting while planning something else. Making fools of anyone who has moral fibre. Making deals with power brokers, then doing their bidding. Giving up all you once stood for in the desperate desire for more power. 

It is the story of a successful leader. Someone who has climbed his way to the top. Greasing palms and charming potential benefactors. But not of an effective leader. There is no authenticity. No trust. Self-awareness, yes. But the self-awareness of the ambitious. Knowingly screwing those who oppose him. And not caring. 

 A cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who has no savings to leave to his family. A quick an easy way to make money that becomes a living nightmare. Living dual lives. Losing your family. Everything that you held dear. A contemporary tragedy.   

The Theme - The End of Personal Morality: Walter White starts as a good and kind family man. He has sacrificed his earning potential to teach chemistry at the local high school. The family are expecting a second child. A happy existence. But then cancer strikes. And Walter turns his talent for chemistry into a money making scheme so his family are provided for after his death. 

The tales is a classic tragedy. Walter succeeds in everything he touches. His talent for synthesizing drugs is unsurpassed. And slowly his ability to be a gangster grows with it. There is no character that stands against him that survives the show. He makes a fortune. His family will be looked after. 

Yet, he destroys himself. Every step he takes towards his goal takes a bit of his humanity with it. He loses his wife and son's trust. He gets his brother-in-law killed. He murders one partner. Lets his other partner's love interest die. This partner is kidnapped and forced into slave labour. The Walter he wanted to be gets taken away by the work he is doing. He loses himself. His humanity. Everything he holds dear. Through the incredible success in his working endeavours. The tragedy of one's talents undermining oneself. 

It's Time to Stop and Think

Each of these themes has relevance to our current state of organisation, management and leadership. You might find resonance. Everywhere. Or somewhere. Or you might regard them as overly dramatic. That's fine. But they patently exist. And inform hugely popular shows. 

Hopefully they have made you think about what organisations might be becoming. How leadership is changing. How traditional forms of management are failing. The shapes work is taking. And, despite our art revealing all this in graphic detail, how we aren't really addressing it.

We are stuck in a system of management thought that originated almost four decades ago. Which has been shown not to work. To produce something other than intended. Which is creaking and straining to complete breaking point under the very technologies it helped produce. And we are struggling to work out what to do. 

We live in a world full of advanced miracles. Gadgets and games of every type and description. Computers in our pockets. Connected to everything at all times. Ending the short, nasty and brutish existence of previous generations. 

We should be engaged. Authentic. Resilient. Mindful. Fit and healthy. Billions are spent on achieving all of this. It should be the most utopian existence imaginable. 

Yet we live in fear. And anxiety. Not trusting the establishment. Awash in cynicism and sarcasm. Stuck in meaningless jobs. Desperate to find a way out. Trying to survive despite it all. Fearful we are at the beginnings of a new dystopia. 

A dystopia (from the Greek δυσ- and τόπος, alternatively, cacotopia, kakotopia, or simply anti-utopia) is a community or society that is undesirable or frightening.

Dystopian themes in literature through the ages precursor the fall of the civilization. Decline. Destruction. Death. The end of Athens. The fall of Rome. Or they can sometimes prefigure a new, hopeful apocalyptic vision. A new outpouring of promises.  New enthusiasms. Better ways of seeing. Of doing. Of working. Of living. 

Which future are we moving towards?


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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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Over twenty years helping people managing change understand why resistance happens and develop quality vital communication skills that aid successful business transformation.


Research recognised as exceptional by world-leaders in the fields of power, leadership and organisational change, receiving considerable praise for its originality, depth and rigour.


Extensive training, coaching and mentoring experience in professional development in well-known organisations, governments and business schools across the world.


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