Leadership and Mediocrity

Several years ago, I accidentally watched an episode of Survivor. I’ve never been a fan of “reality” TV, and I’ve always been fairly selective of what I watch. That doesn’t mean I won’t watch a gritty crime series, or enjoy a good, hokie western now and then – but for the most part, I look for media that stimulates my mind. Anyway, I set the VCR to record one show, but apparently missed the cues and recorded Survivor instead.

A couple of days later, I sat down to watch the show I thought I recorded. Instead, the third episode of Survivor: Marquesas came on. I watched it and was amazed at the dynamics I saw being played out. (Try not to judge me, and listen to what I learned) I was immediately taken by one contestant, Hunter Ellisa former Naval aviator. In my ignorance at how this “game” is played, it seemed to me this is the guy you’d want on your team. If anyone knows anything about survival, it would be this military-trained pilot. But before I could say, sensationalism, Ellis was voted off the island.

Needless to say, I was hooked. I’ve always been a quiet student of human nature and political science. I was curious to figure this out. Why would a group of people vote off the most qualified person on the island. Over the course of the next 12 episodes, I developed a fairly strong theory.

  • First, Ellis was the biggest threat.
  • Second, he was good, but not stellar, when it came to interpersonal leadership skills.
  • and finally, because of the game, the others didn’t see him as a necessary resource.

The main reason I found this show so fascinating was because of the situation I found myself in at the time. Fresh from graduate school, my wife and I found ourselves pastoring two churches – both small, rural (blue collar), and very traditional. Neither of us are traditional, and though we come from blue-collar backgrounds, we are both well educated. In addition, small churches don’t fit well within our background. In fact, fresh from the seminary, and new to professional ministry, we were all set to change the world.

(As a side note, there may be many reasons to send new, young pastors to small, rural churches – but for the life of me, I don’t believe any of those ideas outweigh the damage this does to the individuals and the organization.)

But, back to my fascinating theory on what happened during this episode of Survivor.

Not only was Ellis smart, well educated, and proficient in survival/outdoor skills, but he was handsome and articulate. Unfortunately, the game is about wilderness survival, it is about political survival.  Knowing how to start a fire without matches, or building a shelter without tools, while nice skills to have, neither are the primary objective. Though those skills can be leveraged towards the primary objective, they are merely currency.

As a new pastor, coming into a church where the Head Elder has held his position since I was six years old, I was completely unprepared for the “game.” I (wrongly) believed the purpose of doing church was to help people know that God loves them. I somehow believe that my ideas, vision, and education would be welcomed with enthusiasm and affirmation. For some strange reason, I thought the people in the church were just waiting to be empowered an mobilized. I was so wrong.

I was so wrong.

Interestingly, we got out of that first situation with our lives relatively intact – just as Hunter Ellis went on to capitalize on his 15 minutes of fame. My entire professional career, I relied upon my expertise and skills to succeed. I was a good paramedic, a good instructor, and a good public speaker. I learned to be a good administrator and a good project manager. Somehow, naively, I was able to avoid the pitfalls of the political subcultures I found myself in. I expected a meritocracy, but after watching this one season of Survivor, I learned that merit is seldom the purpose of most organizations.

Relationships matter. One can use their skills and merit a return on investment, but in a political organization, skills, talent, and experience are merely the currency of membership. Without continuing to build the relationships, and the bartering of give and take, they will soon find themselves bankrupt and without merit.

Unfortunately for me, I tend to build relationships with the underdogs and the disempowered. My compassion and empathy tends to overlook the powerful – for I tend to think the powerful would automatically want to help those less fortunate then themselves. I’m not quite cynical enough to think this isn’t true, but I’m pretty close to believing that if one focuses on the underdogs, they will never have a future amongst the powerful.

According to Wikipedia, Ellis was voted one of the worst Survivor players ever. He was deemed to be too cocky and, ironically, not paying close enough attention to his own standing. As I review my previous political errors, this could be said of me also. I’ve often been labeled cocky, or arrogant. I’ll own that. I do think there is a certain amount of self-confidence involved in that – plus, INTJs struggle with this perception. But still, I’ll own that fact that I’m often perceived as too cocky.

I also own the idea that I don’t pay enough attention to my own political standing. I’m opposed to currying favor, bartering with compromise, and using political standing to gain traction. Of course, this has not gone well in many situations. More than once I’ve had a boss call me onto the carpet to let me know I just made him look bad, or wasn’t supporting his vision of how things should progress. And more than once I’ve explained that I will follow my conscience and do the “right” thing, regardless of what is best for the organization’s survival.

My motive is never the survival of the organization, and always what is best for the individuals affected. As a paramedic and EMS manager, I was motivated by quality patient care. As a pastor, my motivation was to serve the disadvantaged and disempowered. As a voter, I am motivated to support those who cannot support themselves – not myself, or those well above the poverty line.

This is what gets me in trouble. I suppose some would suggest I take a more passionate interest in my own career – but I can’t. It’s would be immoral for me to do so. I could never put my own career, or the standing of any organization above what’s right.

Ellis was good. As I said, he was bright, articulate, skilled, charismatic, and attractive. But not stellar. From my observations, he is a leader and he has good ideas, but not stellar leadership, and not superior ideas. The biggest lesson I learned from watching this season of Survivor is that being a mediocre leader is one of the surest paths to political demise.

If one cannot rise up and be the leader, it would probably be best to blend into the background. Unfortunately, this isn’t a skill I’ve mastered either. Coming into this small, rural, traditional church, with a very established power structure, I thought my position, education, and enthusiasm would trump the inertia – it didn’t. In fact, all of my strengths were actually liabilities.

“I was too focused on doing the right thing.”

We were able to escape Rock Springs and serve in an area that was more akin to our passion and vision, but barely. If we had stayed much longer, we might have faced the same fate we experienced in Scappoose. Although I had an intellectual understanding of the dynamics, I never really applied them. Now, in retrospect, I realize this is what led to my demise in Scappoose and later at AMR. I was too focused on doing the right thing (whether my perspective of the “right thing” is correct, or not, is irrelevant to this discussion).

In Scappoose, I was all about reclaiming the marginalized members, looking out for those who didn’t feel comfortable in traditional church settings, and building connections within the community. What I didn’t realize is that none of those tasks should have been at the top of my list of priorities. Oops.

At AMR, I was focused on better supporting the paramedics and EMTs – knowing this is the surest way to achieve quality, and compassionate, patient care. My focus was on patient care and caring for our employees. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that AMRs goal was profit.

Ellis appeared to focus on survival, but because of his superior skills he was deemed a threat. I now realize that some deemed me a threat also. Whether the threat was to their power and control, or to the status quo, it really doesn’t matter.

I wonder what would have happened had Ellis bartered his skillset for position and standing within the game. What would have happened if I had taken the time to establish my position and standing, rather than pursuing the vision within me?

Or here’s a better question: What if society valued ideas and creative vision, rather than pretentious political gaming?

“As you begin to interpret your failures correctly, you will take your first giant step toward maturity.” ~Chuck Swindoll

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  1. […] Not only was Ellis smart, well educated, and proficient in survival/outdoor skills, but he was handsome and articulate. Unfortunately, the game is about wilderness survival, it is about political survival. Knowing how to start a fire without matches, or building a shelter without tools, while nice skills to have, neither are the primary objective. Though those skills can be leveraged towards the primary objective, they are merely currency.  […]

  2. […] Sending highly educated, enthusiastic young pastors into deeply entrenched, traditional, rural churches may not be the best plan. Maybe we need a new strategy?  […]

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