P.C.Pop with Pablo

Survivor Leadership — Chapter 1 — The Leadership Primer

In CBS, Exploring Leadership, Group Dynamics, Interaction Process Analysis, Komives, Leader, Leadership, Malavenda, Nance Lucas, Pablo Malavenda, Pop Culture, Reality TV, Robert Bales, Survivor, Timothy McMahon, TV shows, Uncategorized on February 14, 2012 at 12:06 am




Survivor: One Worldthe twenty-fourth season of the American CBS competitive reality television series, premiered on February 15, 2012. I triple love Survivor for many reasons — one of which may surprise you.  I consider myself a cultural anthropologist with a specialization in Pop culture — so, I force myself to watch as much cable TV and reality TV as possible.  Whether it is another Kardashian or some Wives spin off (including the Mob variety) or another show based in or featuring the colorful residents of the Garden State, I am there. What might surprise you is my assertion that Survivor teaches LEADERSHIP.  Yes, Leadership can be observed and studied by watching Survivor.  On Survivor, Leadership can be seen in a spontaneous and creative manner reinforcing leadership practices, theories and models both contemporary and historic. When I think of Survivor, I think of LEADERSHIP.

Survivor is an exciting experiment because it would not be allowed in most research settings. The basic premise of Survivor would never be approved by IRB. An institutional review board (IRB), also known as an independent ethics committee (IEC) or ethical review board (ERB), is a small group of experts that is formally designated to approve, monitor, and review bio-medical and behavioral research involving humans. On all levels Survivor would be considered high risk, cruel and unusual; and would never be approved by IRB. Part of the attraction of watching Survivor for me is that in most regulated research environments, this type of experiment on humans would be forbidden.  But because it is reality TV — anything goes — and scientists around the globe are jealous and observing — attracted and lured by the Forbidden Fruit. (At least I am.)

The stage is set for the grand experiment for the 24th time.  The producers have assembled 18 “contestants” — 9 women and 9 men.  This group of strangers is stranded on a deserted island or in the middle of the wilderness and forced to work together on tasks and challenges.  If you have watched Survivor you know there are three “tasks” that must be completed almost immediately after these strangers are assigned to their tribes.  Even if you haven’t seen Survivor but you’ve gone camping or played the teambuilding exercise “Earthquake,” you know there are a few survival techniques you can employ.  As you might know, the Earthquake exercise is used to demonstrate the importance of working in a team and the benefits of group decision-making.  The exercise involves ranking of options for surviving an immense earthquake.  Most groups immediately light the candles to illuminate the room and see what they’re doing.  Unfortunately, they end up losing because they blow themselves to smithereens by lighting the candles without first turning off all of the utilities. Ooops.

Robert Freed Bales, considered by many to be the guru of group dynamics and understanding the importance of the role of each team member, made many interesting observations that are directly relevant to Survivor. Bales observed that if you give a specific task to a group of strangers something happens.  Behavior is predictable and patterned and leadership emerges.  With Survivor there are three tasks that need to be completed immediately.

Today Survivors contestants have already watched all of the previous seasons on DVD; so, they know exactly what needs to be done before sundown. Can you guess? Is it “find food”? Nope, you don’t need food to survive but you do need water.  Clean water? Yes, but it also must be drinkable (salt water is clean but not drinkable). To be specific you need clean, drinkable water.


The first three tasks that must be completed by the new tribes before sundown on their first day are as follows:

  1. find clean, potable WATER
  2. build a FIRE
  3. build a SHELTER

Task #1 – find clean, potable (drinkable) water.

Task #2 — build a fire. Fire is important in so many ways.  Fire keeps you warm.  Fire cooks and sterilizes water and tools. Fire keeps away insects and critters and “lions and tigers and bears.” Nuff said.

Task #3 — build a shelter.  One could argue that a shelter is not essential to survival but I would disagree. Shelter gives the tribe a home and a place to “become” a tribe.  Like the town square gives a city a unifying place for the community — so does a shelter.  Also, nothing beats a good night’s sleep.  Tribe morale can be destroyed if the members are not getting a good night’s sleep.  You can’t sleep easily in the rain or with heavy winds. You can’t sleep well on the ground which can chill you to the bone and brings you too close to amphibians, insects and reptiles.  A good shelter can really have a positive overall impact on the entire tribe.


As the tribe members set out to complete these tasks, LEADERSHIP emerges.  Each team member takes on a role based on their actions.  Most actions are positive and help the group achieve its tasks or goals but others are negative.  According to Bales the team member who is the leader is often the member who is talking the most.  This is not because this person is the smartest or has the best ideas.  It is mostly because this person has all of the information from the entire group.  Because this individual is talking the most, other team members are sharing information with this person.  This person has the privilege of holding lots of information and is in the best position to ask questions and offer direction.  These are called “Task Oriented” leadership actions.  Successful leaders though also exhibit “Socio-Emotional” leadership actions.  These actions help to promote harmony within the group and among team members. Harmony is achieved when team members are praised, coached, valued, listened to and empowered. Over time trust is built within the group and the team members begin to perform on extraordinary levels.  A true leader makes sure that tasks are being completed and there is harmony in the team.  Both, not one or the other, are essential.

A leader today is defined as a person who can influence others to be more effective in working to achieve their mutual goals and maintain effective working relationships among members (Komives, 2007).  In this definition offered in Exploring Leadership (Komives, 2007), again there are two elements that define great leaders.  These two things are achieving mutual goals AND maintaining effective working relationships. Both, not one or the other. TASKS and RELATIONSHIPS are both essential in LEADERSHIP.

Soon the 24th season of Survivor begins.  As soon as the tribes get to their camp they will begin the tasks of finding water, building a fire and identifying a location for and building their shelter.  There are always one or two tribe members who take charge with building the shelter.  They identify a location typically near a natural barrier or wall, gather materials for building the floor, walls and roof of the shelter and start delegating tasks and barking orders.  Progress in building the shelter goes well until this self appointed “project manager” notices that not all of the tribe members are contributing.  Commitment to the task of building the shelter is uneven and the workload is not shared equally.  Inevitably there is a group of tribe members who can be seen in the distance chatting it up, laughing, enjoying each other while leisurely wading in the beautiful ocean water on the shore of the majestic beach on which they are all stranded.  The workers pause, wipe the sweat from their brow, feel the oncoming aches and pains of using muscles they haven’t used in months and roll their eyes at these “slackers.”  The resentment and tension begins to develop and rise within this newly defined tribe.

Fast-forward to Tribal Council and you shouldn’t be surprised that the self appointed “project manager” or one of the other hard-working tribe members is voted off FIRST.  Rarely does one of the “slacker” tribe members get voted off.  It is completely logical, right? Vote off the person who worked the hardest and contributed the most to building the shelter, gathering wood, fishing, finding water and food, etc.  Reflecting on our definition of Leadership and Bales’ theory, you know that you must do BOTH — TASK and RELATIONSHIP.  And early in the forming of a team, one would argue that RELATIONSHIP building is more important than TASK achievement.  The hard-working tribe members were certainly TASK oriented but they were not practicing any Socio-emotional Leadership actions.  The tribe members who were chatting it up on the beach were practicing Socio-emotional Leadership actions and “maintain(ing) effective working relationships among members.”  In other words — an icebreaker. In Survivor jargon, it is called building strong alliances.


The tribe members on the beach could not believe that the others could possibly start working together, building a shelter, without first “breaking the ice.”  These tribe members are not “slackers.” Quite contrary, they are working hard on socio-emotional or relationship building actions.

  • Where are you from?
  • How many brothers and sisters do you have?
  • Are you first-born?
  • Do you speak more than one language?
  • Do you prefer country living or city dwelling?
  • What do you read?
  • What music do you listen to?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • Do you squeeze your toothpaste tube from the bottom or from the middle?
  • What is your career or work?
  • Do you have kids?
  • Toilet paper roll — do you prefer over or under?
  • What are your life’s passions?
  • What do you want to be when you grow up?

These tribe members begin to form bonds and alliances based on things they have in common or things they do or do not agree on.  Most importantly, they are building relationships and beginning to care for and trust each other. Regardless of your work ethic, once you begin to know someone and respect them, you will support them, you won’t betray them, and you won’t “vote them off the island.” The one we are most willing to vote off is the one we don’t know much about.  If tribe members ONLY practice TASK oriented actions, they might as well be robots or pieces of machinery — easily voted off with no regrets and no feelings of remorse.The most interesting part of Bales’ observations is that TASK  and SOCIO-emotional are practiced unequally by members of the team; tension will develop between those high on TASK and those low on TASK; great leaders practice both TASK and SOCIO-emotional actions equally; and eventually, team members begin to collectively synchronize their TASK and SOCIO-emotional actions.

Leadership is about having a positive impact and getting things done with a cohesive, talented, supportive team, who is sufficiently challenged and empowered, bring out the best in each other, learn from the experience, and enjoy every minute.  This is why I love SURVIVOR!


(Plus — I met my favorite Survivor, Rupert Boneham, in the pits at the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a few months later I met him again at Panera Bread.)


Now that you have the basics, brush up on your leadership models, definitions and theories and get ready to watch it happen among the new tribe members on Survivor: One World.  It is like watching rats in the lab only they’re real people (well, sort of).  Watch the experiment unfold and see if you can predict who the LEADER is.  Is it the the person who took the time to develop relationships AND contribute to the tribe goals and tasks?  Is the leader the member who talks the most?  Are tribe members afraid to be perceived as the leader or do members come in entitled and assertive? Do the leadership roles change?  Do you see leadership skills that you admire?

Mostly I love that it is completely unpredictably, predictable.  We have no idea what is going to unfold within these Survivor tribes but the leadership that emerges is often patterned and predictable. If you are an emerging leader or a scholar of leadership practices and theories, you won’t know what you will see week after week on Survivor — which is fun and exciting.  We all experience it together.  Understanding Bales and other contemporary, relational and reciprocal leadership models, you too can see LEADERSHIP emerge among the tribe members on Survivor — at least for the first four to six episodes each season.  For someone like me who has been teaching Leadership for close to a quarter of a century, some semesters the most exciting part of teaching is the unpredictability and absurdity of Survivor.  Experiencing it with the students as it is happening.

PLEASE NOTE: Of course as the show progresses and the “game” starts to kick in — Survivor’s basic premise of voting off everyone until there is no team, no tribe, and just one sole survivor is the absolute antithesis of the LEADERSHIP model I hope you aspire to following.

Tune in and let me know what you think.  If you already planned on watching, I hope I gave you something more to observe and reflect on.  If you weren’t planning on tuning in this season, I hope I’ve convinced you it may be worth it. Gather a group of “students”; review the basics of Bales’ Interaction Process Analysis, Fielder’s Contingency Model and Least Preferred Co-worker Scale, Komives’ Relational Leadership Model, and any other Leadership model you like; study the Survivor website taking special note of the biographies of the tribe members, watch Survivor with a set of questions and behaviors and actions to look for and observe; and meet after Survivor airs and discuss.  You are now a professor of Leadership. You will be pleasantly surprised how much Leadership you are able to observe and discuss.  You and the students will be excited to learn together. You might even have found some value in studying Survivor — some value in studying Pop Culture — some value in studying Reality TV. Oh my.


Read more about studying Leadership while watching the CBS reality TV show, Survivor, in the PCPop blog posts:





References:



CBS Survivor: One World airs on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. starting February 15, 2012; and can be viewed online.


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