Perspective

A chance encounter: Leadership on a Competition Show

My wife has recently been hooked on a Competition Series on Netflix. It’s called ‘Skin Wars’, and it is a competition TV show for body painters. It follows the standard model of such shows. Think Americas Next Top Model, or The Next Food Network Star. Normally I wouldn’t watch such a show, but even I have to admit the final products and artwork were impressive. So on occasion, I would watch an episode with my wife, while doing chores or something.

On such an occasion, we were viewing Season 2, Episode 5 ‘Emotional Rollercoaster’. The episode’s main challenge was a Horror-themed pieces made by two teams of four. As the episode unfolded, a curious dichotomy of leadership blossomed. I encourage anyone with access to review the episode. The examples are exquisite! The dichotomy centered on trust. One team grew to trust their team captain. The other started with distrust, and it only festered. Ultimately, that distrust between the team members lost them the challenge. I will focus mostly on the successful captain, hereafter Captain A.

At the beginning of the challenge, he assembles his team for a brainstorming session. Under normal circumstances, creatives can be rather shy about their ideas. They tend to be caution when offering truly unique or ambitious ideas to a group. I was pleasantly surprised to see Captain A handle the situation with such grace!

Captain A asked the group for their input. They bounced some ideas around. Then one of them offered and idea, but immediately backed down suggesting it was foolish. Captain A instead endorsed the idea, praising the team member. The effect was as impressive as it was immediate. You could see the praise taking hold in the proposer, as he smiled and the team began to build on his idea.

In contrast, Captain B chose to dictate her vision to her team, and then ask for input. When team members proposed an idea, she did not exactly reject them… but she didn’t praise or accept them either. The team saw this, and almost immediately began working with a fend-for-yourself mentality. At the end of the brainstorming session Team A had a single cohesive idea. Team B had to cobble together four distinct ideas into a reasonable story.

During the challenge, Team A optimized either activity. The most skilled member handled their specialized tasks, while still managing their one works. The Captain would occasionally walk around asking if anyone needed help. He also directed the team in certain instances, to ensure the joint effort would work. As a result, the captain’s entry suffered from the reduced attention. Several team members remarked about this to each other. I could see the trouble brewing for the end of the challenge. It is standard fare in these types of challenges, to ask each team member who did best and who should go home.

I remarked on the brewing trouble to my wife. The captain had an interesting choice ahead of him. He could ‘save himself’ and throw someone else under the bus, or he could prove his mettle and throw himself under. This prompted my wife to bring up team B. Their captain had a better entry than one or two or her team member. My wife asked ‘what if the captain’s work was actually better?’ My response was ‘unless the captain’s work was markedly superior, not merely better, the captain should not nominate themselves as the best. And even if their work was better, they should never mention a team member as least good. They would immediately lose their team by doing so.’ I didn’t realize the semi-prophetic nature of this discussion until we resumed the episode and watched the judging.

As expected, the judges began asking the participants who should stay and who should go. To my great surprise, Captain A called out the artist who had proposed the team’s theme as the best. When the moment of truth came, he selected himself to go home because his work was not his best. The team, looked mildly surprised. But they all seemed to support their captain, providing mitigating evidence for his lesser quality. It was rather touching actually.

By contrast, team B seemed to turn in on itself. Captain B nominated herself as best, and threw a team member how hadn’t produced their best work under the bus. The rest of the team nominated one of their own as best and generally had little positive to say about their ‘glorious leader’. In the end, one of team B’s low performers went home, and all the remaining competitors became wary of Captain B.

This episode had demonstrated in real life a concept I had mostly seen in books. A leader who can build the trust of those they lead will succeed. But trust is a fragile thing, and must be guarded. In some cases, this required the leader to eat some humble pie. In others they must be willing to let someone else take the spot-light. I’ve heard this called ‘Servant-Leadership’, or ‘Realizing that it’s not about you’. Both fit in this case. And I was thankful for the brilliant demonstration.

One final note, in the next episode, the teams were dissolved, of course. Everyone returned to their individual competition. But I noticed a curious phenomenon with the members of team A. They still showed signs of a camaraderie built during the previous challenge. Among the joking and jostling, I believe there were some helpful hints and aids given between ex-team members. I was surprised that the short stint on a good team had this kind of lasting impact in a show about competing with your neighbor.

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