What zombies can teach us… about leadership

Post-apocalypse zombies approach
Zombie photo CC0 from Ahmadreza89 on Pixabay

In the spirit of hallow’een, this special post focuses on the leadership lessons you can take away from enjoying your favourite zombie movie or game this October.

Zombies are an extreme and surprising sort of threat to everyday life, and one most of us hope never to face! They are extreme because if your work commute is plagued by zombies you are having a really bad day, and surprising because despite the increasingly common use of zombie scenarios for training in military and medical crises, most of us don’t expect it to happen tomorrow. But it is in extreme, dangerous and surprising contexts that effective leadership is most necessary. So perhaps zombies can teach us how to be better at it! Based on some recent research by Buchanan and Hällgren, here’s a three-step plan…

Step 1: Identifying the threat

Well, obviously, the threat is zombies. Cannibalistic, undying, hordes of ex-persons waiting to eat your brains and add you to the mob. But what other threats does a zombie apocalypse present? Because our societies rely so heavily on connected interdependence, the zombie horde represents the threat hidden in independence. Can you survive, alone, in a world where all systems of infrastructure have broken down? How can you identify allies? Especially when the zombie is a treacherous monster, an ally-turned-threat.

With great care, once you collect your team, you might have assembled enough skilled people to survive. Now that the group has come together, though, who will be in charge? Indecisive power vacuums are likely to be filled: probably by zombies who break through the door while we wonder whether to use a lock or a barricade. Perhaps a suitable leader will come forward with the perfect characteristics for the situation, a directive General or military figure, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Someone has this under control. It’s not our responsibility… but if they get eaten? Is there are plan B?

Step 2: Establishing common goals

Through establishing common goals at a high level, all members of the team can contribute. While the overall objectives might seem obvious (“Don’t die”), poor articulation can produce dissent (“We’re all gonna die someday”).  More specific goals such as “let’s eliminate the monsters while staying uninfected then get out of here” allow for multiple team members to contribute according to their strengths. Frequent communication of changing information (“the zombies can be tamed, look!”) can allow for the goals to be reviewed and updated regularly.

Step 3: Teamwork

While the single powerful and effective leader is a compelling stereotype, surprising situations may not be suited to the types of leaders we already have or might expect. As the knowledge and information about the threat (slow zombies or fast zombies?) changes, different configurations of leadership behaviour (those who can run fast) might be needed.

Through maintaining relationships, leadership responsibilities can be distributed to create teams with self-leadership capabilities (the soldier, the scientist and the pilot), but these relationships need attention. A commitment to caring for the group’s well-being and morale may well be as important as the ability to make hard decisions. There is no definite need for an individual leader when each team member can act decisively towards shared goals based on their expertise. But individuals sharing leadership responsibilities need to be able to work with each other and stay adaptable rather than holding onto pre-existing beliefs.

Despite the potential of dynamic and distributed leadership, some skills are irreplaceable. So look after the helicopter pilot.


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