Sunday, April 20, 2014

On Leadership and Lost

I've been rewatching, or kind of re-listening to--I tend to do chores with the television playing--Lost recently. One of the themes of the show is leadership, which is something I'm dealing with in life, as well. You'll see whatever it is you're focusing on, in whatever you look at, so it's not surprising I'm finding it in Lost.

When I was in high school, and I got into first world funks of depression at the hopelessness of life, (i.e. when I was a normal teenager), I discovered that a good route out was through reading really depressing stories by A.P. Chekhov. He wrote hundreds of the things, generally short simple tales on the futility of life, populated by characters who knew, discovered, or completely failed to realize, that every step they took was merely plodding closer to pointless death. They're well-written, with believable characters and the somewhat alien world of 19th century Russia--took me ages to understand why so many grandmothers slept on the stove--so one can read quite a few. At first I would nod my head in sullen agreement that the world was that way. After a while I would venture an internal opinion that maybe it was not that black. And finally I would yell at the characters not to be so pathetic, to go forth and do something. And I would get up and set an example. For some people, inspirational literature requires actual inspiration, but nothing goads me to do things so much as seeing it done incorrectly.

The same seems to be true of leadership training. As much as I probably need to pick up a book to help train myself in the art of leading a group of people to accomplish a goal without any of them killing one another or being eaten by polar bears, I have no desire to. But watch a couple of hours of Lost, and I'm really wishing the smoke monster would get Jack. Sure, I understand that fiction requires drama and heroes, and that fictional heroes require tragic flaws, but some of the television traditions, dare I say tropes are really aggravating. The leader character on Lost is a doctor named Jack. In the immediate aftermath of the crash he is the hero because he can treat injuries, and resuscitate people, but he ends up racing from place to place being the hero for everything. So here are my non-leadership techniques to learn from Lost.

Playing up the incompetence of those around you is not a leadership skill. This is more something Lost (and every other TV show does) than something Jack does but they are both fictional creations of the same writers, so it counts. To show that Jack is a great and mighty leader, everyone else on the beach is depicted as clueless and incompetent. There's a character, Boone, who is a licensed lifeguard, training which specifically includes a good deal of first aid and emergency scene management. Jack has to take over his resuscitation efforts because he's doing it wrong, and later in the show rescues him from drowning, while they are both trying to save a third person. There's no plot reason for Boone to be a fraudulent or incompetent lifeguard. It would have better showed Jack's leadership abilities if he had come over, approved and encouraged Boone's competent resuscitation and moved on to another victim. He would have looked like more of a leader if he had left the task of resuscitating someone who had been pulled out of he water specifically in the hands of someone whose professional specialty that was. The dramatic point that was made during the swimming rescue would have been made more strongly if it were Boone who had to haul an exhausted Jack back to shore. When Jack needs someone to hold down a patient who has to endure surgery without anaesthetic he chooses a man who specifically and repeatedly states that he can't handle the sight of blood. He sets the guy up to fail.

Doing everything yourself is not leadership. Jack is always running, literally running, from one situation to another, placing himself in danger without developing or drawing on the skills of the people around him to solve problems. This is his major dramatic character flaw, so it couldn't be more blatant, but watching him do it wrong is a good way to make me wonder where I can apply this lesson. My beach isn't covered in able-bodied people who can be pressed into service to do the essential tasks, but I still might be doing more leaping than is strictly necessary.

Meanwhile Ben, the mysterious leader of the others, shows quite a different style of leadership. He doesn't do any leaping at all, accomplishing everything through sinister psychological manipulation. This fascinates me, and I know it can be done without the sinister part, because I willingly go to great effort to achieve goals under psychological manipulation by my own boss and by the director of an organization I volunteer with. You see, I like to feel valuable and appreciated and they know that, so they appreciate me in return for my efforts. I'm always left thinking to myself, "I'm happy, and--in the case of the non-volunteer position--they give me money. Am I being tricked here? If I weren't being manipulated into doing this, I might go and do something else ... which might make me happy ... or money." And then I get confused and stop thinking about that.

So, in conclusion, leadership lessons for the day: Get people around you to do things they are competent at in return for things that they want.


Majroj said...

Read Robert Towensend's classic but short "Up The Organization". Get some old coot or mature lady to explain some of the dated cultural references for you.

Yeah, never learn leadership, CPR or firefighting from TV shows.

Anonymous said...

Why do so many grandmothers sleep on the stove?

DataPilot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DataPilot said...

The Russian Stove/Oven, where Grandmother slept.