5 Leadership Lessons from 'The Wire'

The focus of the "The Wire" was largely the drug trade and all that comes with running a narcotics empire, but it has some crucial lessons for all leaders.

Twenty years ago this month, television viewers got an intimate look at the drug wars and pervasive hardships of Baltimore. 

David Simon, a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and Ed Burns, a former city homicide detective and school teacher, wrote a fictitious story with great authenticity based on their real-life experiences. Their intimate knowledge made the "The Wire's" characters all the more compelling and allowed viewers to access a world they likely didn't know about prior.

The focus of the show was largely the drug trade and all that comes with running a narcotics empire in the U.S., and each of the kingpins had a different approach to business, with varying levels of success. By the time the series was finished, it was widely considered one of the greatest in American TV history. 

Two decades later, "The Wire" remains just as relevant and has five crucial lessons for us as leaders. 

1. Know who you are 

Avon Barksdale was the No. 1 man in West Baltimore. He never lost focus on what made him successful. He kept a low profile, was comfortable in his own skin, and wasn't going to change just to change. He knew the core element of what made his business run, and he worked to maintain quality in that specific area.

2. Don't lose sight of the people you lead 

Stringer Bell was the No. 2 man in the West Baltimore drug operation. He wanted to become more of an intellectual, applying his business class training to the street. This sounds great in theory, but because of institutional corruption and constraints on mobility aspirations, the knowledge he gained wasn't all that applicable. He attempted to change what he couldn’t control, which is the biggest fault a leader can fall victim to.

3. Think 3 times before making a plan 

The show's most popular character, Omar Little, a shotgun-toting vagabond who was essentially a modern-day Robin Hood, stole from drug organizations for his own benefit. He was tough, furious and had a code of ethics he practiced each day. Omar never backed down, was willing to confront his enemies, and always thought before acting.

Omar was shrewd, calculating with each move, and understood his opponents' actions and reactions. Even though he was often up against a two- or three-man crew, he outmaneuvered everyone with as much brain as braun.

4. Share your success with others 

Joe Stewart, a.k.a. Prop Joe, was a strategist and deal maker, believing the good of one could become the good of all. He formed a co-op of rival gangs, melding fierce rivals together for the greater good of making more money and having fewer deaths. He understood how to make deals and work with people on the opposite side.

5. When opportunity knocks, kick in the door

Marlo Stanfield was a young drug dealer who blazed his own path to the top of the industry. In season five, when Marlo makes his move to acquire the connection with the main drug suppliers, he wipes out the middle man and co-op, taking over the entire city. Marlo understood the benefits of spending time flying under the radar until the right opportunity presented itself. Then, he attacked.

If you haven’t watched "The Wire," do so. It’s an education in so many areas that can serve as a masterclass for any leader. 

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