5 Leadership Lessons from "Hell on Wheels"


For the unfamiliar: "Hell on Wheels" is a fictional TV series about the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the USA in the mid-1800s. The main character, shown above, is Cullen Bohannon, the crew foreman, whose wife and son were murdered in the Civil War. Initially preoccupied with revenge, over time he becomes determined to play a leading role in the railroad. More at Wikipedia.

The AMC channel has discovered a formula for success that appeals to Gen Xers like me: 
  • Take a small band of people;
  • Set them against deadly hostile enemies;
  • Show how they try to make normalcy in an extreme;
  • Then have one character (usually male) lose the woman he loves, after which;
  • Said leader emerges as a true leader who fights off his evil counterpart. 
Let me say that I do not like Westerns, action movies, or horror flicks as a rule but "Hell on Wheels," like "The Walking Dead" is none of those things. It is actually a leadership tale. After watching a season on Netflix, here are some things I've learned about what people need from a leader:
  1. Leaders have to embody a very grand, wildly exciting, profitable-for-everyone goal. The railroad was and is the dream of connecting people with far-off lands, of making the wild inhabitable, of limitless wealth and trade. But at the same time, it was a crazy and dangerous concept many had to pay with their lives for. So - they build a bridge over the water and Bohannon tests the train car that rides over it. He flies this way and that inside the car and almost falls out. The scene is awesome and explains in about three minutes why the workers are in that godforsaken place at all.
  2. Leaders have to make good on a reward. At the most minimal level you have to pay people what you promise them, whether it's money, recognition or other forms of developmental opportunity. In the show, there is another character, "Elam" (the singer Common) a freed slave who works for the evil Durant but only because he envisions a home of his own, "just a piece of land by the river" to make beautiful and to defend. Elam is willing to do the dirty work although it pains him, but when he believes the sacrifice is no longer worth it, he quits and has to be recruited back.
  3. Leaders must inspire admiration and fear. We talk a lot about the idea that leaders should be visionary and engaging and that is true. But the fear factor cannot be ignored either. If the leader lacks any ability to impose negative consequences, people will not follow him or her. In the show, the railroad is initially run by Durant. Nobody likes or respects him; he's an evil, greedy fraudster and a killer. Obviously this is an extreme. But a little fear is essential and leaders who are excessively "nice" are doing the workforce a disservice.
  4. Leaders require enforcers. The leader communicates the vision, the mission, the values and also the consequences for failure. That's important, but the leader is emotionally invested and therefore compromised. The enforcer is the one who has no investment other than to serve the leader single-mindedly. The combination of leader plus enforcer has exponentially greater impact on the individual who is expected to do the work. In the show there are times when the leader tries to act as enforcer (e.g. Bohannon tries to be judge and jury), but when that happens he is restrained by another character who reprimands him for overstepping his bounds.
  5. Leaders who don't hold people accountable are not respected. There is a scene where Bohannon tells a worker to stop talking so much and get back to work. The worker talks back. It almost gets physical. But Bohannon stands his ground and the workers goes back to work with a shrug of his shoulders. Similarly, a member of the settlement tries to kill two brothers he believes are responsible for the death of his friend, and Bohannon, acting as a sheriff, frees the brothers, restrains the man and throws him out of the town. People may test the rules, but they need to have them there.
While it's true that a show is just a show, often you can learn a lot from the way art exaggerates life and makes us focus on key issues or themes we tend to overlook. I actually learned a lot just from the exercise of writing this post, and would be curious what others might want to add, either from HOW or elsewhere.

* All opinions my own.