Renegades and Heroes: In search of the good boss in TV and Film

In the previous instalment of this series for AMBITION, Martyn Griffin and Mark Learmonth explore the idea of the incompetent, rule-driven and predatory boss. In this instalment, they explore the renegade, heroic and good bosses found within fiction

Mr McMillan (Big): ‘A Boss needs to be knocked on his ass every once in a while.’

One of the strangest things about fictional portrayals of bosses is just how rarely we see one who might be described as ‘good’. Not merely competent but somebody who we would be happy to see appointed as the boss of our own workplace. More often than not, as our own research suggests, fictional portrayals tend to pick up on and accentuate the negative characteristics of management practice: their greed, their meanness, their incompetence. Of course, this is just as much a matter of entertainment as it is a reflection of a cultural tendency (particularly in the West) to expose, mock and decry bosses but it does also leave us with a severe lack of onscreen management role models. If people predominantly see managers onscreen acting awfully towards their staff, might this then legitimise and normalise aggressive, domineering and vicious behaviour in the workplace by those in charge? Given the evidence on the influence of TV and film on attitudes and behaviours we might at the very least expect it to have some wider cultural impact.

However, it is not all doom and gloom when it comes to the portrayal of bosses – in breaking down the ten typical management identities in popular culture, we  explore three categories that offer a glimmer of light when searching for the good manager.

Gus Fring (Breaking Bad): ‘I investigate everyone with whom I do business. What careful man wouldn’t?’

Whilst managers are often portrayed as being rather dull, of being ‘men in grey suits’, in a more fantastical sense they are also imagined as individuals who can break the mould and do something completely different. Buckingham and Coffman’s 1999 book First Break all the Rules encourages managers to embrace deviation, and doing things differently. They argue, based on empirical evidence, that the most successful managers in the world today do not merely toe the line, but challenge conventional wisdom and do things that might surprise or shock. Gus Fring, played by Giancarlo Esposito in TV’s Breaking Bad, is a modern representation of this kind of renegade manager. Fring is the owner and manager of a chain of fast-food chicken restaurants. He also happens to be one of the biggest distributors of meth-amphetamine in New Mexico. In fact, these jobs go hand-in-hand, with his role as an upstanding member of the business community, enabling Fring to hide in plain sight and distribute his ‘product’ between his various chicken outlets across Albuquerque undetected. Esposito suggests that what also attracted him to the part was that Fring was a man who ‘handled his business like a business’. Those who got in the way of that business paid the ultimate price but those who did well were rewarded. He was, for all intents and purposes, a very good boss. Like most renegade managers, despite their immorality and terrible actions we often can’t help but be attracted to their free-spirited nature and refusal to play by the rules – perhaps reflecting our own unfulfilled desires to do the same!

These kinds of renegade managers have come to the fore in recent years through a corresponding shift in popular culture towards the manager as an anti-hero – as somebody who might be ethically unsound but who is inspirational and gets the job done. From Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street to Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder, these bosses engender a loyalty and devotion from their staff through breaking the mould and doing things differently. In doing so, renegade bosses tend to walk the line between legality and illegality but – they would argue at least – they are doing so for what they consider to be the greater good.

Tony Stark (Iron Man):Is it better to be feared or respected? I say, is it too much to ask for both?’

A second managerial category in TV and film that might be considered a more positive portrayal of bosses is that of the heroic manager. This manager (and it tends to be exclusively he rather than she) is positioned as a saviour. They tend to possess, or at least want to be seen as possessing, super-human qualities which enable them to be heroic in situations of crisis. They are smooth talkers, well-presented and more often than not highly sexually attractive. Whilst classic examples of this kind of heroic manager can be found in characters such as Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest and Rick Blaine in Casablanca, in more recent years the heroic CEO can most often be found within the plethora of comic book movies on our screens. For instance, Tony Stark (Iron Man) is a fantastic example of the heroic manager. Like Bruce Wayne (Batman), Stark uses his immense wealth inherited from his parents and his talent for innovation to fight evil in various ways. However, unlike Bruce Wayne, he has no desire to hide his identity – indeed he courts media attention at times and is happy with being considered the hero. Through Stark Enterprises he creates defensive and offensive weapons/robotics/satellites that are designed to protect the vulnerable. Stark is positioned in Marvel films as a boss learning how to become a hero and ultimately he demonstrates a selflessness and sacrifice within his role where he puts other people’s well-being above his own. This reflects a wider cultural assumption that top bosses should be able to do what others simply cannot do or are not willing to do. The implication being that business leaders are a special breed that can push organisations and more generally human kind forwards in ways that normal people simply cannot. Whether this is true or not is another matter entirely, but this category does reflect an ongoing hero narrative in the perception of our business leaders (most recently through the likes of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs) that do take in to account a more positive role of bosses in society.

Raymond Holt (Brooklyn 99) ‘Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place. So, thank you.’

The final category of managers we explore here is that of the good manager. ‘Good’ is clearly a normative term – what is good for you might not be good for me – but this managerial identity is more concerned with the manager being ethically sound towards their staff and being on the side of good – of wanting to preserve justice, honesty, working together as opposed to corruption and injustice. In many respects, it reflects the recent Taylor report into ‘Good work’ which explored workplaces that were trying to preserve decent working and management practices. These are extremely rare managers within TV and film and are often found in leadership roles in law enforcement whether that is Superintendent Ted Hastings stamping out police corruption in BBC’s Line of Duty or Captain Raymond Holt trying to manage a diverse group of police officers in Brooklyn 99. There are bosses that divide workplaces and alienate individuals and groups without even trying (we explored plenty of these within our study). Thankfully there are also bosses that hold workplaces together and act as the glue that binds people from different backgrounds together in pursuit of a shared goal.  Holt is an example of the latter. He is a strict, professional, serious man who runs the department with an iron fist – an iron fist that is required to keep the array of oddball police officers working in the precinct in line. At the same time, he is very kind , loyal and devoted to these officers – forging a special bond with each of them as the series progresses . It is this three dimensional balance which makes him such a fantastic boss and widely feared, loved and respected within the precinct.

Whilst good bosses are few and far between in fictional portrayals they do thankfully exist. We opened this piece with a quote from one of our favourite onscreen bosses – Mr McMillan – the boss of a toy company in the 1988 film Big. Through an understated and subtle performance by Robert Loggia, we see McMillan indulge the childish curiosity and inventiveness of his new worker, Josh (played by Tom Hanks), and remain open to new ideas and ways of organising his business. At one point in the film, after being accidentally knocked to the floor by Hanks in the office, he tells a rather surprised colleague: ‘A boss needs to be knocked on his ass every once in a while.’ This level of humility is rare within bosses in TV and film, but is so refreshing when you do see glimpses of what a good boss might sound and look like. Rather than displaying anger or a mean streak, bosses like McMillan give us hope that not all bosses are bad, and neither do they have to be to be successful. And, inspired by these characters, neither do we.

Dr Martyn Griffin is Associate Professor in Management and Marketing, and Mark Learmonth is Professor of Organisation Studies at Durham University Business School.

‘Fiction and the Identity of the Manager’ is a chapter written by Dr Griffin and Professor Learmonth, and published in The Oxford Handbook of Identities in Organizations (pg. 455-470).

You can find Martyn Griffin’s blog at https://www.democracytocome.org/fiction-and-the-identity-of-the-manager/

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