Leadership Lessons from a Zombie Apocalyspe (no, really!)

What a great summer! As fall arrives expect to see more posts. This guest contribution comes from a friend and colleague. Rollie White lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two teenage daughters. Rollie is a student of leadership philosophy and works darn hard in government. When not commuting on his bike or fishing, Rollie enjoys cooking with his wife and traveling. We hope you enjoy his observations on leadership!

Leadership lessons can come from just about anywhere. My favorite recent example came from a Hollywood blockbuster starring Brad Pitt called “World War Z.” In the movie, a virus that turns people into crazed, flesh-eating Zombies is spreading around the world. Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, is a family man who clearly has some sort of CIA/James Bond/special agent past. Lane is sent by what is left of the government to find a way to stop the virus. He eventually arrives in Jerusalem, where the Israelis have built a 10-meter high wall around the City just days before the Zombies arrive. Gerry Lane (Pitt) wants to know how the Israelis knew. From the script:

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Gerry Lane: How did Israel know?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: We intercepted a communique from an Indian general, saying they were fighting the “rakshasa.. Translation, “zombies.” Technically, undead.
Gerry Lane: Jurgen Warmbrunn, high-ranking official in the Mossad. Described as sober, efficient, not terribly imaginative, and yet, you build a wall because you read a communique that mentions the word “zombie”?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: Well, if you put it like that, I’d be skeptical as well. In the ’30s, Jews refused to believe they could be sent to concentration camps. In ’72, we refused to believe we could be massacred in the Olympics. In the month before October 1973 we saw Arab troop movements, and we unanimously agreed that they didn’t pose a threat. Then, a month later, the Arab attack almost drove us into the sea. So, we decided to make a change.
Gerry Lane: A change?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: “The tenth man.” If nine of us with the same information arrived at the exact same conclusion, it’s the duty of the tenth man to disagree. No matter how improbable it may seem, the tenth man has to start thinking with the assumption that the other nine were wrong.
Gerry Lane: And you were that tenth man?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: Precisely. Since everyone assumed that this talk of zombies was cover for something else, I began my investigation on the assumption, that when they said, zombies they meant zombies.

The “10th Man”, or better yet, the “10th Person”, is not actually a real tenet of the Israeli intelligence operations. The idea is based, however, on a real approach the Israelis use: the Office of the Devil’s Advocate. Regardless of one’s views of the politics of Israel and the Middle East, it makes sense that the Israeli government feels it can ill afford to miss or underestimate any risk to its well-being – every threat must be assessed, and you can’t assess or defend against threats you don’t see. So the Israelis rely on the Devil’s Advocate’s Office to constructively criticize the rest of the Israeli intelligence operation, to ask “what if,” to think outside the box, to detect a threat that “Group Think” or complacency might miss.

Fortunately, so far in my Conservation Career, I have yet to have to deal with any Zombie Apocalypses. But time spent challenging old assumptions, thinking outside the box, or playing Devil’s Advocate has proved immensely valuable. Sometimes, this kind of thinking allows you to see a path to success when you have otherwise not seen one. Sometimes, you see a risk inherent in an approach you might have taken that can easily be inoculated against. Most often, the value comes from deliberately asking if the decision you just made was the right one – this is especially true if the decision made was a unanimous one.

The value in these cases comes later in time, when the going gets tough, or big challenges come up, and some on the team start to question the original decision. To be able to remind your team that “we asked that very question back when we made our decision, and we made the decision in full understanding of the consequences” is very valuable. As just one example, I served as a foreman on a jury in a civil case where a man had been injured and was suing his employer. When the jury ultimately found in favor of the employer, I asked the jurors to each offer up one idea or fact that would have made them find in the plaintiff’s favor. Most complied, and we discussed each briefly – did we miss that in testimony? Could it have happened? At the end, we were even more certain we had the right decisions. When I walked out of the jury room, I was very glad we had done so, as I watched the plaintiff sitting on a bench, sobbing his eyes out. While I certainly felt for the man, I never doubted the jury’s decision.

So you may be thinking that it is all fine and dandy for me to spout off about playing Devil’s advocate – my boss doesn’t like to be challenged and will never let us criticize management ideas. Fair enough – some people don’t like to be challenged and would perceive this kind of thinking as undermining their authority. By way of response, I’d suggest you model your own willingness to have someone tear apart your own ideas. Share this with the boss, and bring in the co-worker that “scrubbed” your idea. Model how an idea or decision can be strengthened by testing it, by doubting it, and by trying to bust it with a strong challenge. Sometimes, fearlessness can be infectious.

And please pass the popcorn – I have some more leadership lessons to find!

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Have you ever worked with a “devil’s advocate?” Are they under appreciated in the workplace? What do you think? Rollie and I would like to hear from you.

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About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
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6 Responses to Leadership Lessons from a Zombie Apocalyspe (no, really!)

  1. tlwertz14 says:

    Love the philosophy and am taking the message with me as I go forward in my career. That said, I was soundly keel-hauled for doing that very thing with my supervisor. I do not understand this unwillingness to at least discuss alternatives or re-examine past decisions. I believe we do ourselves and others new to the office a huge disservice by not practicing such critical thinking. I have been trying to open up new ways of thinking with my current staff, though. We all are learning to be more creative since everyone seems tentative to start such pathway forward. It’s already paid off a few times, and I believe our confidence will allow us to make even better decision in the future. Thanks for bringing such a unique spin to the concept.

    • Rollie White says:

      tlwertz14,
      No one likes getting keel-hauled, but I also think a supervisor that would do that for a well planned discussion of alternatives is not someone in whom I’d invest much trust, or for long. Sometimes even asking in a meeting “does anyone have any thoughts that raise doubts about this approach?” can prove helpful. Showing that you are unafraid of having your ideas critically reviewed can help spread the practice. At times, you may even need to draw out the criticisms, or even self-criticize to set the example. Anyway, it is all fun. Thanks for your comment. Cheers,

      -Rollie

  2. Iaato says:

    I’m happy to see that Jimmy had a great summer and is now back to posting. Rollie, this is a great article–we need people who intelligently challenge the bureaucracy, now more than ever, as bureaucracies have frozen up, at a time when the basis for our world is shifting radically under our feet, much faster than our bureaucracies. Having bosses that won’t listen is a part of dogmatic protection of the status quo of big bureaucracy. Keep challenging and writing!

    • Rollie White says:

      Iaato,
      Thanks for the response. I am fortunate that my (local) bureaucracy is open to this kind of hard look at things, and as a result, we have had some great successes that we can point to. Once you have a success or two under your belt, people start asking how you got there, and that gives permission to share the secret of devil’s advocacy as a path to better outcomes without invoking the “dogmatic” responses. It takes patience, but it ends up being fun. One of the best outcomes is when you scrub an idea hard only to decide “Nope – it is perfect as it is!”. The scrubbing really helps with the confidence aspect of decision-making.
      Cheers,

      -Rollie

  3. Holle, Deborah says:

    Hey,

    I’m retiring so please change my email to miamibig99@aol.com When I tried on the WordPress.com it kept wanting me to set up a blog. I just enjoy reading yours!

    thanks,

    Deborah Holle Refuge Manager Balcones Canyonlands NWR 24518 FM 1431 Marble Falls, TX 78654

    512/339-9432 ext. 10 FAX 512/267-6530

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