Lessons From The CBS Show – Survivor

For those of you who have not had the opportunity to watch it, Survivor is a television reality show. Contestants are dropped in the wilderness and told they need to outwit, outplay, and outlast their competitors to become the “sole survivor”. The interesting twist is the use of a judging panel of contestants who were voted out of the game by their “tribe mates”. How these judges are treated while playing the game impact their final vote on who wins the cash prize for being the “sole survivor”.

The show has spawned a number of “Lessons from Survivor” articles and even a book entitled “Survivor Lessons: Essays on Communication and Reality Television”. I thought it might be fun to give you my take on some leadership lessons from Survivor.

Eight Leadership Lessons From The CBS Show – Survivor

  • Learn to make fire. Every new season, it amazes me that the majority of contestants have no idea how to make a fire without a match. The show has run from 2000 – 2011, and most people who try out to be contestants are students of the show having watched every episodes several times. To not learn how to make fire before participating is inconceivable in my mind. As a leader, you need to have passion for and like to help people succeed. Leadership is all about working with and inspiring people to achieve goals. Yet, in my career I have seen many managers who aspire to be leaders, but are self-absorbed. Many act as though people are an inconvenience rather than the focus of their effort. If you are going to be a contestant, learn how to start a fire so you can be warm. If you are going to be a leader, learn to start a fire in the hearts of people so you can help them fulfill their true potential. Don’t be surprised that it is a requirement of a leader.
  • The Tribal Council Can vote you off. Your skills are always being evaluated. Often, meeting expectations is not sufficient for you to assume greater leadership responsibilities. And, as you advance through promotions the pyramid has fewer positions available and more intense competition. Failures in leadership become more visible and success is often a matter of who was in the right place at the right time to get the opportunity. The decision of whether you get the nod or not is typically made by a senior leadership committee (equivalent of a tribal council) as part of their succession planning process. Be certain you know where you stand in the minds of the members of this committee. Correct any misperceptions and address any skill outages they may see.
  • Play both a social and a skill game. Be flexible and adjust quickly to changing circumstances. Many leaders focus on developing their business skills and relying on their expertise as a reason for people to follow them. This approach can be successful when managing discrete projects, but less successful when leading organizations through unchartered waters where being nimble is mandatory. Uncertainty requires people to believe in you and not simply in your skill set. To believe in you, they need to know you. That means you need to put yourself out there and let people understand what makes you tick. People need to relate to you personally so they can trust you with their careers.
  • Add unique value to the tribe or you will be seen as redundant. Leaders are doers and not simply managers. One of the things I really appreciated at Procter & Gamble is the cultural expectation that everybody at every level had work that they were personally held accountable for delivering. Nobody at any level simply managed people and processes. While management skills are important, effective leadership requires you to be an important contributor to the team’s success. People need to see the unique value you bring to delivering the team objectives. Always be sure you understand what work you, and you alone can do. Make that your highest priority work every day.
  • Create strategic alliances to help you move forward. Leadership can often feel like a lonely journey. But, in reality many people want you to be successful and are willing to help you. The best approach is to identify people inside and outside of your organization who can provide you mentorship when required. It can be invaluable to have a trusted confidant to bounce ideas off of as you work through difficult decisions. In my experience, it is best to proactively identify personal mentors rather than leave the exercise to chance. Strategic alliances require an investment of time and emotion to be effective. Choose wisely and commit to the relationship.
  • Blindly trust nobody. On Survivor, every season somebody who thinks they are in a great position within the tribe is voted out at tribal council. They are “blindsided” [hot link to http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/blindside]. Stephen Covey, in his book “The SPEED of Trust”, argues that trust is an essential ingredient for any high-performance, successful organization. But trust should be based on behavior and not simply words. You should treat people not as they are, but rather as they can and should be. This will stretch them to perform at a higher level. You should always be respectful, but trust them conditionally. When it is clear help is needed, step in and provide it. Don’t simply let people fail. Check in frequently so you objectively understand where a project stands are never blindsided by your team’s optimism.
  • Be unconditionally trustworthy. Your word should always be your bond. If you promise something deliver it, or don’t promise it. Stephen Covey identifies 13 behaviors that contribute to your personal trustworthiness – 1) talk straight, 2) demonstrate concern, 3) create transparency, 4) right wrongs, 5) show loyalty, 6) deliver results, 7) continuously improve yourself, 8) confront reality, 9) clarify expectations, 10) practice accountability, 11) listen first, 12) keep commitments and 13) allow people to earn your trust.
  • Own and quickly admit your mistakes. On Survivor, every contestant makes a mistake that upsets the tribe and places him or her at risk of being voted “off the island”.  The ones that survive do not try to hide or rationalize away their mistake. They minimize the opportunity for the mistake to create ill will by owning up to it immediately and simply. “I made a mistake, and I am sorry”, is one of the most powerful and motivational phrases a leader can utter. Trusting people enough to be vulnerable and seek forgiveness is a powerful motivator for team members. Any leader who throws his or her people under the bus will soon lack followers and will be voted ‘off the island’.


By no means is the above intended to be a comprehensive treatment of the subject. I am honestly not a Survivor Show fanatic, so I know I missed some lessons. I also apologize to non-US readers who might not know what the television show is all about. I do think there are many parallels between Survivor and most work environments. And, while not every strategy that works for contestants on Survivor are worth emulating, the lessons are worth contemplating.

Your Thoughts?

Please leave a comment with any perspective or questions you might have. I am eager to hear and learn from you.

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