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Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned From “Survivor”


Steve Baker, Senior Resource Manager Fahrenheit Finance, August 2013                 

Ever since the CBS reality TV show, “Survivor”, premiered in 2000 it’s been my shameless weekly addiction.  For those who have perhaps been on a deserted island themselves for the past 13 years, the premise of the show is to strand 16 average Americans in an exotic, remote and usually very tropical location for 39 days with little or no survival supplies.  Here they then compete to “outwit, outplay, and outlast” each other while facing off in challenges for rewards (survival or luxury items) and immunity from elimination from the game.  Every three days someone is voted out of the game by majority vote of the contestants until two people are left at which time those who were voted out previously vote for a “sole survivor” who is awarded a grand prize of $1,000,000.  Not a bad day at the office.

With the show now beginning to launch into its 27th season, I’ve learned that some great leadership lessons can be gleaned from the gameplay that has developed on “Survivor” over the years that can be peppered into the workplace to become a more effective leader.

  1. Strategy:  Contestants who have gone far or who have won “Survivor” have all come in to the game with a plan that they carefully try to execute.  Rarely has a contestant come into the game winging it and advanced to late stage game play.  Crafting your vision for direction and growth is an essential skill all leaders must possess.  Luck only goes so far on “Survivor” and even less in real world organizations.
  2. Insight:  Successful Survivor contestants can clearly and succinctly identify their strengths.  Maybe even more importantly, they also understand their weaknesses and limitations.  Recognize what your best skills are and play into your strengths while downplaying your weaknesses.  Rely on those you lead to augment weak areas and set an example for others by doing so.
  3. Risk:  Working out of the comfort zone and taking calculated risks rather than demonstrating risky behavior (there is a huge difference) to overcome fear is a key trait for anyone cast to be on Survivor.  A willingness to step out defines a strong leader.  Leaders appreciate challenges, embrace innovation and possess clear confidence in the midst of risk. Leaders know big risk can result in big reward.
  4. Agility:  The $1,000,000 award is often a continually moving target for contestants on “Survivor”, and as the game changes over time (or overnight in some instances) those who are willing to change with it typically move far.  The willingness to shift your planned course in order to advance will move you and your team forward.  Stubbornness and inflexibilty to do so leads to missed goals and ultimately failure.
  5. Commitment: Alliances among contestants develop early on in the game, and some of the most successful Survivor players have stayed true to their alliance to the end of gameplay.  Broken alliances typically result with each member becoming vulnerable to elimination from the game.  Align yourself with a core group of loyal people to create a powerful influence that will advance everyone to the next level.  Loyalty will always be remembered – and keep in mind so will betrayal.
  6. Benefit:   Effective Survivors bring strong worth to their team’s goals and add to the team’s success; they don’t just manage or dictate the team, they contribute.  Effective leaders inspire their followers to fulfill their true potential by providing value.  No one wants to follow someone they who won’t contribute and who they ultimately can’t benefit from in some manner.
  7. Listen:  Survivors who sit back, listen and consider what others are saying typically move further in the game than those who talk and isolate themselves to the idea that their way is the only way.  Unifying the team to the end goal may be attainable through multiple ways and listening to ideas of others may just get you to your destination with no matter to the vehicle that brought you across the finish line.
  8. Trustworthiness:   While the game of Survivor often does require some element of deceptiveness, being inherently dishonest, manipulative and deceitful translates you into a fraud on the show.  This behavior results in a blindside elimination after blindside elimination (which always makes for great TV).  Honor your word and commitments to those you lead to create a loyal following and a buy in to the mission of your organization.  Failure to do might result in your own blindside.
  9. Personality:   Social skills are sometimes more critical than survival skills in order to advance in the game of Survivor.  Many winners are surprisingly more savvy with people than life in the wilderness, and more often than not the individual with poor people skills is voted out early on.  For leaders, book smarts don’t always advance you.  Kindness counts and people will follow someone with a vibrant, charismatic personality over someone they cannot connect with emotionally.
  10. Transparency: – Survivors make plenty of gameplay mistakes and are often caught in some level of dishonesty (whether intended or not).  They’re human just like all of us and human nature lends itself to the occasional mistake.  Successful gameplay on the show requires transparency when it comes to lack of judgment.  Leaders can either learn from their gaffes and admit their mistakes to mitigate the impact or they can throw others under the wheels of the bus and back over them.  The latter action will ultimately get you voted off the island.

Certainly not every aspect of “Survivor” is worth personifying, and there are no guarantees that any of the above traits will get any contestant past the first vote off.  But consider how you lead and how those you lead respond to your style before you face the dreaded words, “the Tribe has spoken”.

Steve Baker, Senior Resource Manager – Blending a unique background as a former CPA turned recruiting expert, Steve leads the talent sourcing efforts for Fahrenheit Finance.  He brings over 14 years of talent acquisition experience to our team from both the search industry and corporate environments.  When looking for a search partner, our clients, employees and candidates are in good hands working with Steve.

Connect with Steve 804-955-4421, Email / LinkedIn