Leaders for the End-of-the-World

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Aliens invade and humankind goes into hiding.

A flu virus wipes out most of the world’s population.

The power across the globe goes out and can’t be turned back on.

Robots we created take over and we’re on the run to find a new planet to colonize.

Flesh-eating zombies are everywhere and the remaining survivors desperately avoid being bitten.

Civilization is under totalitarian, Big Brotheresque rule, but just over the horizon there’s freedom, if one of us can just make it there.

We love these end-of-the-world stories.

End-of-the-world films, television series, and novels reign as most-watched, most-read today. But wait, it isn’t “the end,” rather a post-apocalyptic world where the end doesn’t quite come. Naturally, we can’t bear to imagine that none of us survive.

Let’s leave ‘real-world’ future of leadership predictions to others for a moment. Instead, let’s tap into our imaginations. Notice in the fictional, yet eerily foreseeable post-apocalyptic world that we love to love: our pre-apocalypse leaders weren’t what we needed them to be.

Leaders’ action or inaction caused the apocalyptic event to occur. In fact, this brink-of-human-extinction pickle we’re in can be traced to the corrupt or weak leadership. A few rotten, greedy, unthinking, indecisive, and/or power-hungry leaders (or leader-wanna-bees) got us into this mess.

Not to worry. To quote R.E.M., “It’s the end-of-the-world as we know it, and I feel fine.” New leaders emerge. Guess what? They are rather ordinary people, a lot like you and me.

Take The Walking Dead, the most-watched hour of cable television of all-time. Rick Grimes, a small-town sheriff’s deputy, steps up and leads. His “executive team” consists of unlikely warrior-leaders: a pizza delivery guy, a tomboy farmer’s daughter, a battered wife, a backwoods survivalist, and a recovering alcoholic, to name a few of the future leaders who are reshaping civilization with Rick.

In post-apocalyptic fiction, leaders are as likely to be women as men.

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My all-time favorite post-apocalyptic leader is President Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica, the Sky1/SyFy channels series circa 2004–2009.

Roslin is a former kindergarten teacher serving as the Secretary of Education, making her 43rd in line for the presidency. Cylons (robots we created to do all the work we don’t want to do) nuke the capital. With this mass extinction, she ascends. The entire human species’ survival rides on her shoulders.

President Roslin’s decisions, critical thinking, ability to manage the relationship—especially with the military during a time of war—and her enduring focus on the good of all humankind, make her a great leader. Sure, she makes mistakes. She frequently asks for help from her trusted advisors. And yes, she’s often scared silly. But her authority, her leadership is unshakeable. In one episode, a military commander says it best: “the lady is in charge.”

The traits possessed by Roslin and Grimes are indicative of all positive end-of-the-world leaders. Trust me, recently laid up with a particularly nasty flu bug, I binged on post-apocalyptic tales and here’s my newly-minted expert analysis.

The Top 10 Traits (Positive) Post-Apocalyptic Leaders Share

1. Reluctance. Circumstances thrust them into leadership and they choose to step up and lead. “I didn’t ask for this.” – Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead
2. Moral Compass. Leaders struggle to adjust their moral compass, openly discussing how difficult it is to go against the moral code that guided them pre-apocalypse.
3. Mistakes-Makers. End-of-the-world leaders make tons of mistakes. They take their tribe down the wrong road, they trust the wrong people, and they own up to these mistakes.
4. Testers. Penultimate learners, these leaders test everything before acting to discover what works best. After all, danger lurks everywhere and survival depends on testing approaches first.
5. Hopeful. They hold onto hope and continuously inspire hope in others too.
6. Sustenance for All. Who cares about money or profits post-apocalypse? It’s providing for the whole tribe, as equally as possible, that is the focus of end-of-the-world leaders.
7. Value the “Tribe.” It is crucial for leaders to not only learn what each survivor brings to the tribe, but to challenge each person to learn new skills quickly. Not a democracy per se, leaders do solicit input from the tribe because each member is valuable and valued.
8. Persistent. Bouncing back from even the most horrible set-backs—like the death of loved ones—leaders show their vulnerability by talking about how tough it can feel to keep living.
9. Decisive. Typically, post-apocalyptic leaders have superior critical thinking capacity, often making life-or-death decisions on a dime. When a decision is made, they demand unified action.
10. Courageous. They find courage they never knew they had. “At some point, you have to stop running and turn around and face whoever wants you dead. The hard thing is finding the courage to do it.” –Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Which, if any, of these traits are not highly valued now?

Granted, in all titillating post-apocalyptic tales, there are downright evil leaders too (e.g. The Governor in The Walking Dead). End-of-the-world story-tellers intimate that we might deserve this kind of terrible and terrifying post-apocalyptic leadership.

Pre-apocalypse we were too weak, too quiet, too busy, too fearful, too uninformed, and maybe just too darned lazy to demand better leadership pre-new world order. Or just maybe, we didn’t muster the courage to take the lead ourselves.

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Encore post in honor of the U.S. Women’s History Month. Originally published in eMile People Development Magazine, Sept. 2014.  Images via movie pilot.com (Walking Women) & intheopen.blogspot.com (Laura Roslin). 

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