Leadership lessons from Survivor

If you know me, you aren’t surprised by my Survivor addiction.  From its very first episode I’ve been on board, and every new season I dive in and watch as teams of strangers play in this odd mix of competition and cooperation, as social structures evolve and intermingle and new strategies emerge to conflict with the old.

Recently this season (an “all-star” season with returning contestants), I watched as two competitors vying for control of a team gave us an interesting leadership lesson.

The team in question, at this point in the game, was made up of 8 individuals.  Two strong personalities (Rob, Russell) each command two loyal followers, and two people hover in between these groups, unsure of how to best get ahead in the game.  The team, having lost the most recent challenge, was preparing to cast votes to eliminate a player.

Rob, worried about Russell’s conniving gameplay, went to his group (and the two “free agents”) with a simple directive: it makes sense, we have to get rid of Russell.  No other move makes sense, let’s go with it.  His two strong allies were fine with this, but the two others remained unsure.  Rob’s answer? They’ll come around; it’s the only right vote to cast.

Russell, taking a different approach, singled out one of Rob’s weaker allies for elimination.  But when he pulled his group together, he asked them to approach the other two individually and find out what they wanted.  When he learned one of the two actually wanted to see Rob eliminated instead of Rob’s ally, he changed his approach entirely, and put his full weight behind this plan.

In the end, the two free agents split their vote.  One of them sided with Russell and targeted Rob.  The other targeted a different player; basically “throwing away” his vote since he knew it wouldn’t matter and he was unhappy with both leaders’ options. Neither leader secured both free agents, but where one leader tried to drag them along (and alienated them both), one listened and modified his objective and secured the vote of one.

Rob ended up leaving the game, 4 votes to 3.

The lesson is pretty simple.  As a leader you may believe you have the right answer, and in fact your answer may be strategically correct.  But those you are leading need to be engaged and feel ownership.  When they come to you with a goal which differs from your own, don’t shut it down right away.  Listen, and consider.  Maybe their path isn’t the one you envisioned, but that doesn’t mean the end result won’t be close enough.  In the end, you as a leader are powerless without the team’s support — and it’s better to have a unified team marching towards a slightly suboptimal goal than to have a fractured team giving less than their all in support of what goal you happen to think is best.

There’s a huge difference between “How can I get you on board my train?” and “How can we all end up on the same train?”.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Gil on 04.14.10 at 7:02 am


As a fellow EMCer and a fan of Survivor and social psychology, this was a great little write-up of advice on persuasion and leadership.