Dispiriting details of how business operates in Hollywood have come to light from a US lawsuit over profits from smash-hit TV show The Walking Dead. The case has shone a ghastly light on the state of communications within the US entertainment industry, with material disclosed in court revealing how the series’ first showrunner, Frank Darabont – who is suing network AMC for $280 million – expressed his dissatisfaction with the creative team’s output.

In one email to producers, Darabont warned that everyone on the show, especially the directors, had better wake up, “Or I will start killing people and throwing bodies out the door.” Turning specifically to his script woes, the former lead writer thundered: “Please let’s stop invoking the ‘writers’ room.’ There IS no writers’ room, which you know as well as I do. I AM the writers’ room.”

He then singled out two writers for what he perceived to be poor-quality work and said that, if it were up to him, he wouldn’t have just fired the pair “when they handed me the worst Episode Three script imaginable” – he would have “hunted them down” and “killed them with a brick, then gone and burned down their homes”. He added: “I don’t want to see them cc-ed on ANYTHING anymore. They renounced that privilege by not even trying to live up to their job descriptions.”

In another email written after reviewing rushes from the show’s set, he snapped, “I am profoundly let down by some of this footage. I’m boiling mad.” And again singling out a specific creative, he griped of the director: “It’s like we yanked some kid with no experience out of high school and put her in charge of directing a show.” What kind of effects does a leader risk having by emailing, and briefing against, colleagues so aggressively?

The Institute of Leadership and Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper cites the work of leadership psychologist Tony Robbins as a useful touchstone for this issue. “He talks really eloquently about our deployment of language,” she says, “and points out that if we use language to catastrophise situations, then we give ourselves catastrophes. In other words, our doom-laden outbursts can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Darabont obviously doesn’t mean that he’s going to kill people with bricks. But the aggression is so palpable in the way he refers to his colleagues that it signals a complete refusal to take any responsibility for their development as creatives, screenwriters and directors. His leadership behaviour, therefore, is seriously lacking.

“Hanging over this court disclosure is the question of whether creatives are different. It’s fairly well known that US media firms have a two-tier approach to etiquette. Directors and screenwriters turn up to meetings in their street clothes rather than suits, because it makes a more convincing case for their artistic image. We’re all motivated differently, and great leaders understand that creatives require a measure of freedom and autonomy. But does that mean they have the right to behave in ways that cross reasonable boundaries of basic civility? In a major piece of research that Google published last year, it concluded that a higher-than-average social sensitivity is the key to successful team motivation.”

Cooper adds: “Maybe Darabont actually thinks that he’s an astute judge of character, and that his assessments are so accurate that if he says someone is no good, then they really are no good. But even if that were so – and I doubt it is – the fact that he acts and talks like this means that his behaviour is going to be replicated throughout the organisation. We might expect a writer to use extravagant phrases. But bearing Tony Robbins’ thoughts in mind, conversation is the way we get things done in organisations. If you’re using these sorts of phrases, then you’re creating a climate where the outlandish becomes normal. After all, this turned out to be a hit TV show.

“It begs the question: what would he do if he was really in trouble? To discuss his staff in these terms, and not even realise that it reflects upon him, shows a high level of insularity. As showrunner, surely he bears responsibility not only for identifying talent, but managing and developing it, too. And abdicating that responsibility is absolutely wrong from the perspective of best-practice leadership.”

For a range of ideas on great communication, check out these resources from the Institute

Image of Frank Darabont courtesy of Tinseltown, via Shutterstock