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To Lead or Not to Lead: Assuming the Leadership Role on ‘Survivor’by Patrick Dayries -- 02/09/2006
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Several times on Survivor we have seen that players who try to assume the leadership role on the tribe too early end up getting booted early, as Tina Scheer’s departure last week illustrated. Because of this phenomenon, the under-the-radar strategy has become prominent and, indeed, somewhat lucrative; we need only look at Lydia’s fourth-place finish in Guatemala as the most recent example.
However, many Survivor fans, including myself, don’t respect the under-the-radar approach. We want to see more players who actively control their fates, or at least attempt to. But we also know that players who try to control too much too soon typically get voted off. How could a canny strategist (something many fans think they would be if they were on the show) resolve this dilemma?
The answer to this question becomes apparent if we take a look at some principles of social psychology, especially those concerning leadership. I am hardly an expert in this field, but I do understand enough of the basic principles of leadership to devise a solution to this “To Lead or Not to Lead” conundrum that commonly presents itself on Survivor.
To begin, we must define the term itself, “leadership.” In the field of social psychology, there are about as many different theoretical definitions of leadership as there are insects on any given Survivor locale, but for our purposes, we will define leadership as the process by which a group is given the direction and motivation it needs to accomplish tasks and improve itself.
I am defining leadership as a process (as opposed to a role) because I want to emphasize that more than one person can initiate this process. In other words, more than one person can lead. One of the main reasons would-be leaders tend to be unsuccessful on Survivor is that they fail to understand this principle.
In Thailand, for example, Pastor John immediately tried to establish himself as an authority figure on Chuay Gahn, but failed to realize that he was isolating himself as he did this. Contrast this with Tom in Palau, who shared the leadership position at Koror with Ian, establishing somewhat of a president/vice-president relationship. Similarly, in Guatemala, Gary and Stephenie led the Yaxhà in tandem early on and used their positions to form a tentative alliance.
Another reason many individual leaders fail is that they don’t consider exactly who they should lead. The leadership process only works if at least a few people are willing to follow. If a tribe consists mainly of people who don’t really want any guidance, as Ulong did in Palau, then no one who seeks to offer guidance can be successful. Jolanda, who tried to organize the Ulong initially, found this out the hard way.
This is why anyone who wants to initiate the leadership process must have some solid support before they can proceed. To be clear, Jolanda did have support in Ibrehem and Bobby Jon, but this wasn’t enough to save her. By contrast, Lea (a.k.a. Sarge) formed an unimpeachable alliance of older men from the get-go in Vanuatu, and as a result, was able to systematically eliminate the younger men from Lopevi. And even though Roger was thoroughly obnoxious in the Amazon, he survived an early boot from Tambaqui because he had enough support in Butch, Dave, and (during the first few votes) Alex to secure his position.
But Roger failed in a major way as he continued the leadership process, and this failure is what ultimately cost him: he didn’t know how to lead. Specifically, since he was oblivious to way he came across, he became carried away in a specific style of leadership that future Survivor players should always avoid. Roger was the epitome of the authoritarian leader.
An authoritarian leader focuses too much on tasks and not enough on the people around him. He is completely unwilling to cooperate or collaborate; he just bosses people around. He expects people to do what they are told without question or debate. He is intolerant of what he sees as dissent (it may simply be an alternative way of doing things), so he makes it very difficult for anyone to contribute.
During the course of Survivor history, there have been many authoritarian leaders, and some of them even made the merge. But none of these players have won because, eventually, enough people get tired of their crap and join forces to vote them off. John in Marquesas, Rupert in Pearl Islands, and Ami in Vanuatu all saw their strong positions dismantled because they were either too arrogant or too oblivious to see the change in the wind.
The only authoritarian leader to make the final three was Lex in Africa, and he was extremely lucky to get there. His ill-advised witch hunt of a single sandbag vote was paranoid lunacy at its utmost, and Brandon’s shamefully poor decision-making was the only reason Lex didn’t become the first jury member. Kim J.’s final vote cost Lex the win, but his own arrogance is what really sealed his fate.
Lex would have done better had he learned from his cohort Ethan, or from Tina of the Australian Outback, because these two winners exemplify the democratic style of leadership. This is probably the best style with which to initiate the leadership process on a tribe in Survivor, because it allows the savvy player to lead without seeming to lead.
The democratic leader focuses almost entirely on the people around her. She builds teamwork, helps people with their problems, and provides psychological support. She doesn’t bark out orders; she makes suggestions and tries to get a consensus. She includes everyone in the decision-making process and asserts herself only when there is no other way to resolve the issue.
This is the solution to the leadership conundrum on Survivor. If you want to initiate the leadership process on your tribe (and frankly, you should want to, because you’ll be more likely to influence votes that way), you can’t do it alone. Not only do you need a co-pilot, but you also need enough supporters to form a working alliance. Once the leadership process begins, don’t get cocky and act domineering. Continue to work behind the scenes, and make everyone in your alliance think they have more influence than they actually have.
It will be interesting to see if any of the remaining players in Survivor: Panama – Exile Island can follow these guidelines.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out these other Survivor: Exile Island Episode 1 articles:
Patrick Dayries is a senior at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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