Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Lost" in Leadership Theory

When reading Heifitz's "Values in Leadership" article, I found myself thinking about my favorite television show; Lost. The theory that Heifitz discusses that I feel applies specifically to Lost is the contingency theory. To review, contingency theory states that "different situations demand different personalities and call for different behaviors," and that "the appropriate style of leadership is contingent on the requirements of the particular situation," (Heifitz, 1994, p.17). Anyone who is a Lost fan knows that the leaders of the various groups change as situations on the island change. Ben, Jack, Sawyer, and Jacob can all be considered leaders at one point or another. Even Hugo calls the shots now and then.
In our discussion of contingency theory, I would like to look specifically at Ben. On the island, Ben is a devious and manipulative man who killed his own father in order to gain power. For the majority of the show he is the leader of "the others." Although his tactics are seen by many as evil, he claims he is only doing what is necessary to protect the island and those on the island. However, in a flash sideways (a flash sideways shows the lives the characters would have lead if they were not on the island) Ben is depicted as a mild mannered history teacher with very little power. So, we see that given a different situation Ben is not a leader. Could it be that because there were such dangerous circumstances on the island, a ruthless and manipulative leader was necessary, which drew out Ben's leadership skills?
I believe that most everyone would agree Ben is a negative example of contingency theory. He was willing to kill anyone who got in his way, including his father. His daughter was even killed as a result of his tactics. It could be argued that Jack is a more positive example of contingency theory. There were times when he stepped down as a leader because the situation called for someone different, but his methods were never hostile.
This example is important because it demonstrates how a seemingly harmless person can turn into a destructive leader when the situation calls for it. It is important to understand that it may be necessary to alter a situation in order to get a positive leader.


  1. I have never seen the show, but there is a valid point in regards to the use of contingency theory. It also ties in with Rost's article stating that leaders become followers in some relationships and the other way around. So even though the "survivor" situation evoked the leadership in Ben, what type of leader was he? Did his team members follow because of fear or out of passiveness?

  2. I too am a big fan of Lost and really liked the connection you made to the people in the show. It is interesting that most of the leaders on lost only emerged as leaders because of the plane crash. Almost as if they were forced into it. For example, kate was on her way to jail before crashing and was in no position to lead anyone. Sawyer the same as a con man with no good intentions and definitely no leadership plans. I wonder if their lives would have ever brought the leaders out of them if not for the crash. Great connection.

  3. I agree, Amy! LOST is one of my favorites too and I feel it is interesting to examine the fluctuations in group dynamics and the shifts in leadership over the six seasons. As Spencer pointed out, many of the characters were not "leaders" prior to the plane crash, but rather took on a leadership role in the face of a crisis. It is interesting to consider the implications of this observation in a crisis in an organizational setting -- not quite as "life-or-death" as stranded on an island, but the business world can often inspire the survival mentality that these characters face.


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