The Walking Dead: Rick vs Negan – Who Was Really The Better Leader?

The season 10 finale of The Walking Dead is almost here. It’s been a long time coming after being delayed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, come 4 October, the wait will be over.

During lockdown, I went right back to the start of the show and watched from the beginning. This was partly to fill the time and also partly for research purposes. After all, it’s good to make sure you’ve got all bases covered when there’s a virus sweeping the globe.

Whilst working through every episode of The Walking Dead over the last few months, I’ve been treated to a lot. The show is full of wonderful protagonists, and has delivered some great storylines in the time it’s graced our screens. It’s also introduced us to a handful of villains as well, although I’m not sure one of them entirely deserves that label.

At the end of the season 6 finale, we were introduced to Negan, The Saviours’ terrifying but extremely charismatic leader. It was clear he meant business right from the start, taking out two major characters in only his second episode. For seasons 7 and 8, Negan’s sole purpose was apparently to make life a misery for anyone who wasn’t in his crew. However, as the episodes ticked by, I found myself leaning more towards Team Negan than Team Rick.

rick and negan who's the better leader

Being totally honest, I’ve not been fully onboard with Rick as a leader since the end of the second season. His big ‘this isn’t a democracy anymore’ speech was a big turning point for his character in my eyes, and I think he went downhill a lot from there in the following season, however it’s fair to say that certain events that transpired contributed significantly to that decline. 

Different outlooks

Rick’s biggest downfall was always the fact that he was something of an idealist. He had his moments like the one described above where he tried to play hardball, but deep down that just wasn’t him. Rick wanted everyone to at least be able to live beside each other in the new world. The problem, however, was Rick and his group always wanted this mutual existence to be primarily on their own terms. We’ve seen time and again throughout the show scenarios arise where Rick and co present themselves to a new group and immediately start calling the shots, despite they themselves being the ones needing the help of their new hosts, not the other way around.

It was unrealistic to think this was an approach that would wash with everyone they came across. But Rick kept it up for a while, before graduating to taking by force if that was necessary. When he learned he would eventually have to give something back, Rick offered the absolute bare minimum – not a smidge more than that. 

As for Negan? He understood that you can’t have it all your own way all the time. For everything that he and The Saviours took from other groups, they did offer a service in return. They took care of the dead. Negan knew that his bunch of rogues could fill a gap that these other groups couldn’t, and he capitalised on it. Whilst it could be said that this deal was forced on people, it was all in the name of survival. The Saviours had no issue with doing the dirty work, but producing their own food simply wasn’t an option at The Sanctuary, as later seasons revealed. As a result, they had to take, but they were willing to give in order to receive.

negan the walking dead

Leadership styles

As well as different perspectives on the world, Rick and Negan also had very different approaches to leadership.

Despite what he said in the aforementioned outburst, Rick was very much wanted to create some kind of democratic civilisation. We got to see his first attempt at this in the prison at the start of season 4. Since then we’ve seen a number of different ‘government’ structures come and go that Rick himself was at the heart of.

The reason Rick threw himself into rebuilding civilisation was that he had people to create a future for. Carl and Judith meant the world to him, and he wanted them to be able to hope for something better. Just surviving wasn’t going to be enough for them from his point of view. This was a good thing for everybody however, because it ultimately meant that they were creating something bigger than themselves. Rick as leader wasn’t a long-term option, especially as the group grew in size.

This was where Negan fell down a bit. He ruled through fear. There was no real threat to him or his position because everyone was scared of getting on his bad side. No one dared to challenge his authority because they were well aware of the consequences failure would bring, which was the most likely outcome for anyone who tried. However, the problem with relying on fear to keep order is it’s unsustainable. Negan had this assumption that he was always going to be around to govern The Saviours. As a result, he never put any kind of contingency in place for if he wasn’t. As witnessed at the start of season 8, this caused a lot of unrest whenever uncertainty arose concerning his whereabouts and wellbeing, and would have created a huge power vacuum had he not have returned.

However, The Saviours got disbanded before that got a chance to happen. Whilst it would have only taken one person smart enough and brave enough to topple that empire, that person never came. From what we saw, Negan’s approach was effective in maintaining his power – something that Rick always struggled with himself.

rick grimes the walking dead

Rick seemed like he was constantly having to fight to keep order and power wherever he went. What’s worse, however, is the fact that it wasn’t just outsiders who constantly sought to undermine him. Throughout the course of the show, a number of people tried to go above Rick’s head. In the early days, it was people like Shane and Andrea who were supposed to be on his side. Later on, it was outsiders such as Spencer from Alexandria who fancied themselves as the top dog.

There were always people who saw some kind of weakness in Rick, presumably because he didn’t take a hard-line tyrannical approach or used brutal force at the drop of a hat. He didn’t put the fear of God into people, especially as he started to expand the group. Some people lacked faith, and because of this and the fact that they knew no serious harm would come their way, they had visions of overthrowing him as leader – a problem that, despite all his shortcomings, Negan never had.

Attitudes towards other survivors

What’s funny about this particular point is that there isn’t really much of an argument for Rick at all. He saw every other existing group as something to be taken over. Until a good way through the show, Rick would fly into every camp and clear the place out. It wasn’t until they reached Alexandria that Rick’s group made any attempt to integrate with others, and I dare say much of that was down to the fact that the place and its inhabitants was simply too big for them to easily take control of.

That is not the way of a good guy, or good people for that matter. It’s one thing to defend what is yours, but to enter a place that doesn’t belong to you and start calling the shots, despite them doing you no harm, is something else entirely. We saw this with Alexandria, Oceanside and with the Scavengers to some extent, although we did discover a few pieces of work within that camp later on. It is fair enough for everyone you don’t know to be seen as a threat, and people’s survival did depend on that, but it seemed to me that Rick and co actively looked for trouble everywhere they went.

negan the walking dead

Negan and The Saviours, however, didn’t go to such extremes as invading and conquering every other camp they came across. As stated earlier, they did force trade deals on other survivors, but for good reason, and when you think about it, those trades were a good idea. Everyone had something that somebody else needed, so it made sense, even if it was applied rather heavy-handedly.

Personally, despite all the bravado he carried, I don’t think Negan enjoyed killing anyone. It was something that had to be done from time to time to maintain order. However, he wasn’t the murderous psychopath he was made out to be by any means. In fact, he said himself that people are a resource, and he trade deals, the punishments handed out in his own house, and the way he left other camps alone outside of the tribute he collected all suggest he was fully behind that statement.

However, the attitudes both men held towards other survivors also applies to who they let join their groups. I think we’re safe in assuming that Negan would let pretty much anybody join The Saviours. He certainly had the numbers and mix of characters at The Sanctuary to suggest so. In fact, part of where the name of the group came from was because they saved people. In season 8, we encountered a familiar face who had been taken in by Negan and his crew right when they were at their lowest – something Rick wouldn’t be able to account for on too many occasions himself.

Overall intelligence

Can we all agree that Negan was just smarter than Rick? He knew how to handle people and got exactly what he needed from them with minimum investment on his part. He could play everything to his advantage because he was so capable of anticipating what would and could come next. Negan was always steps ahead of Rick. That’s how the two of them initially came face to face, and it’s why Rick was always on the back foot going forward.

He also knew not let his emotions rule him. Very rarely have we seen Negan spin out and lose control because he was all riled up. Instead, when things went wrong for him, he simply figured out how to work with his current hand.

rick grimes the walking dead

In stark contrast, Rick was governed solely by emotion. He was constantly losing his edge as the show went on, and his decisions became more debatable as a result. We saw a significant split of opinion amongst the main group following Rick’s decision about Negan’s fate following the war with The Saviours. Even Daryl disagreed with Rick on that particular issue, and it’s easy to see why. Rick went against the plan he had laid out to everyone because of the change of heart brought about by the dying wishes of his son, Carl. He consulted nobody and made his own decision. This would have been fine if this was merely a personal matter, but it wasn’t. Negan’s emergence had affected numerous communities and what happened to him was about more than what would help Rick sleep easier at night as a grieving father.

Team Rick or Team Negan?

As the show’s protagonist, The Walking Dead was always Rick Grimes’ stage, and everybody else just actors upon it. But, as a leader and as a human being, the man wasn’t perfect. He had unrealistic expectations about what was possible and often failed to deliver what was needed of him. In fact, he always seemed to fall apart at the most crucial moments. Negan, on the other hand, might have had questionable methods for how he kept his ducks in a row, but when things started to go wrong, he always knew what to do in order to get back on top.

Those are the qualities I’d look for in a leader personally. There is security in knowing that someone will always know what to do next. Pair this with the fact that Negan appeared to be pretty indiscriminate with who he offered that security to showed that, actually, he wasn’t that bad after all.

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