Lessons from Dr Who

4 August 2016

Lessons for Leadership from the Classic TV Series, Dr. Who

The iconic Dr Who first hit the screen in a BBC broadcast in 1963.  It’s now the longest-running program in TV history.  Its longevity is due to its clever format that allows it to refresh with new scenarios and periodically new doctors.  Like many TV shows, there is a subtle message built into the show – good over evil, success over failure, risk-taking over risk avoidance, collaboration over isolation, to list a few.

Each episode offers a different scenario and they are quite ambiguous, meaning the viewers really don’t know what to expect from episode to episode. Bouncing around through history, from the past to the future, allows many themes and concepts to develop, it really is like a free (and entertaining) education on how to engage and build creative workplaces – critical elements of great leadership.

What are the takeaways from the show, particularly for leadership?

  • First up, hopping into an ex-police phone box and appearing in a new era that throws out new challenges should be like our modern day work environment. Imagine a Dr Who where every time he landed he found himself in the same place and era; it simply wouldn’t compel viewers to ‘stay tuned’. A stifled workplace with no buzz of excitement simply does not compel employees to perform! This is a challenge for leaders.
  • Next, Dr Who depends on his helpers to get him out of tight jams. He’d have been long demolished by a Dalek or Cyborg if he’d been going it alone. What is the nature of the help? It is collegial and independent.  By collegial I mean working together for the overall good; by independent I mean it’s distinguished by allowing the helpers to use their initiative to get out of jams.  Dr Who doesn’t have all the answers and needs the help of others to survive.  Imagine a show where the ‘star’ told everyone what they had to do; it would be boring, a bit like a command and control workplace.
  • Then, the show doesn’t just focus on history it jumps into the future. It allows the imagination to roam about ‘what could be’.  Does your workplaces lack imagination?  Imaginative and creative leaders think about the future and embrace the ambiguity of future events.
  • Dr Who is a calculated risk taker. Whenever he hits the button in the Tardis to a new adventure, he does it in the confidence that risk is not unhealthy; it is the essence of being alive.  If the shows’ viewers knew where the next adventure was it would be boring, turning up to work every day with a scheduled and configured routine makes for boring work.  Great leaders aim to make the workplace interesting; it increases productivity!
  • When a Dr Who runs out of steam, interest or hits the time to go and smell the roses, the producers cleverly introduce a new Doctor. Always resplendent as a new character and different to the previous Doctors.  A clever way to maintain viewer interest and to refresh the show; some workplaces need to institute a ‘Dr Who replacement program’, particularly when things begin to flag. This could mean new faces or a new style and approach to leadership; regardless, variety is an imperative!
  • Dr Who never forgets the importance of lightness and humour, while he faces tense situations he always paints a positive view and optimism for a successful result; he’s also comfortable with self-mocking and not taking himself too seriously. We the viewers know he’ll be back next week with another dose of optimism and self-deprecation.

What are your takeaways from Dr Who?   How can this formula be implanted into the workplace?

Kerryn Fewster

Kerryn is the Founder and Director of Change 2020. She has consulted extensively in the area of Transition and Transformation. She places emphasis on strategy development and solution implementation to minimise people and operational impacts associated with major change.

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