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The Mod Man: Don Draper as Weber’s Charismatic Leader

AMC’s “Mad Men” premiered in 2007, highlighting the lives of 1960s-era advertising men and women working on Madison Avenue. The series revolves around ad guru Don Draper, a heroic figure with ruggedly handsome looks who has a sixth sense about advertising (and women). In this post, Ami Stearns suggests that Don Draper exemplifies one of Max Weber’s ideal leadership types, the charismatic leader.

Mad Men Logo

For research purposes only, I just finished playing the quiz “Which of Don’s Women Are You?” on the official Mad Men website (FYI: I’m Allison, Don’s one-time secretary and one-night stand). Love him or hate him, Don Draper is the larger than life face of AMC’s Mad Men.

You’ve heard of Mad Men, right? The period drama, which just wrapped up its sixth season, has set a record for basic cable television shows by winning an Emmy four years in a row. The highs and lows in the bedrooms and boardrooms of the NYC advertising execs have created legions of fans over the past six years, spawning a Wall Street Journal weekly blog, the requisite official merch, and even games.

Don Draper

If you’re not familiar with Mad Men, chances are you’ve at least heard of its leading character. Ad man Don Draper overshadows the costumes, sexual escapades, office scandals, and historical context of the show. Draper not only anchors the series and drives the storyline, he also reaches beyond the television screen to influence current culture. Draper is the inspiration for the new craze in posing called, appropriately, “draping”. Banana Republic acknowledged it was Draper who helped lift them out of a sales slump, thanks to his fashionable wardrobe , while the New York Times reported that sales of the once-passé Old Fashioned cocktail are way, way up, due to Draper’s on-screen beverage of choice. Draper is without a doubt one of the most suave and manly – not to mention recognizable- characters that have graced a TV drama in the past few years. Other television series have tried to capitalize on the 1960s craze (I’m talking to you, Pan Am and Playboy Club), but the lack of a mesmerizing leading character like Draper clearly led to their quick cancellations.

Don Draper is what sociologist Max Weber would call a charismatic leader. The three types of leaders are discussed in his 1922 book Economy and Society and again in a 1958 book, The Three Types of Legitimate Rule. Weber suggested that societies and institutions are ruled by one of three ideal types of rulers: legitimate, traditional, and charismatic leaders. A legitimate ruler has been elected through a process involving rules and regulations. Examples of legitimate rulers are the President of the United States or the CEO of a company. Leadership positions inherited from family members are characteristic of a traditional leader (Hint: traditional rulers’ names are usually prefaced by King/Queen, Empress/Emperor, Shah, Czar, Sultan, and etc.). Traditional leaders have been granted the position by nature of their lineage. The third type of leader, the charismatic leader, is a little harder to pin down definitively. In Economy and Society, Weber describes charismatic leaders as those who emerge to become natural leaders of a group, especially during times of “psychic, physical, economic, ethical, religious, and political distress.” I can’t think of a better description of the tumultuous 1960s where Mad Men takes place. Examples of charismatic leaders include Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Steve Jobs, Hitler, Gandhi, Eva Parón … and Don Draper.

Draper exhibits certain qualities, such as nerves of steel in the face of utter chaos and a supernatural genius for creating and communicating advertising ideas, not to mention his extraordinary talent of seducing women. Though Draper was not a partner when the series first began, it was clear from the obedience and loyalty given by his fellow workers that they viewed him as the charismatic leader of the ad agency. The office attributed the extraordinary profits reaped by the firm to Draper’s divine talents. No crown, no voting, no inherited title…just pure charisma.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Have you ever encountered someone you thought was a charismatic type of leader?
  2. Can you list 3 more famous charismatic leaders, not including the people listed in the post above? In what context did these leaders arise and how did they acquire the title of “leader?”
  3. Traditional leaders have begun to decline in favor of the more modern legitimate leaders. Do you think charismatic leadership will decline also? Why or why not?
  4. Read the following article http://usdmsgl.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/how-to-succeed-in-business-don-draper-style/ and think about whether the skills of a charismatic leader are something that anyone could adopt through practice. According to the article, what other skills are important for leadership besides charisma?