Effective or ineffective leadership in apocalyptic situations

As a professor of management, I infrequently get to discuss zombies in class. The topic rarely arises and though zombies have been taken more seriously in the last decade as a mainstream horror element. But a recent re-watch of Criterion’s excellent re-mastering of Night of the Living Dead, I thought a modern Organizational Behavioral perspective might be interesting to take in discussing the actions (and inactions) taken in that film. For those who have not seen it, it isn’t nearly as gratuitous as you may think though the subject matter deals with topics still taboo and one or two scenes I still find unsettling. There will be plentiful spoilers below but the film is available widely for free (check archive.org) or the above mentioned Criterion release is a great option.

The film opens with two sets of dyads. Barbara and her brother (Johnny a know-it-all unsentimental jerk) are together and later Barbara finds herself in a large house with Ben (a fellow survivor who is scrappy and full of ingenuity). Though Barbara begins the film as reasonably relatable and quick-thinking, she is so deeply unsettled by the first 10 minutes to be wallpaper for a large chunk of the film. This is regrettable from a modern perspective where we would hope that individuals would have the internal fortitude to rationally recognize their situation and respond with action as opposed to shutting down. Harry, loud-mouthed though castigated coward, has a very similar reaction, hoping to put his head down (in the cellar) and wait for things to end. Barbara is waiting and witless due to shock (which she eventually comes to terms with) but Harry is just as wonton as Barbara through his actions. There are other characters (the young lovers Judy/Tom) and Harry’s longsuffering wife Helen who receives an unnecessarily violent end at the hands of her daughter (Karen) but they will factor less into this essay.

Ben quickly asserts himself as the leader of the group after the other players arrive. This was notable at the time as Ben is African American, though this is only subtly commented on by the other characters. Harry appears unwilling to take or accept orders but it is not made explicit that this is due to Ben’s ethnicity or some other characteristics. Ben takes command and begins making orders. Ben is a task-focused leader, primarily focused on distributing work to other individuals within the small collective of survivors. “Find me some nails, the longer the better” he tells Barbara, which is the only task she accomplishes before falling into a fit. Later in the film, Harry criticizes Ben’s work on boarding up the house, attempting to assert his opinions on the value of returning to the basement as the most reasonable option. Some commentators note that a retreat to the basement ends up being what saves Ben at the end of the film, but I agree that staying in the basement was not a good plan in general.

So, now to the question at hand. Is Ben a good leader? I think it is important to consider that our characters have limited information about the world. So success or failure are not entirely determined based on their actions. Reasonable actions could lead to failure when given incomplete or inaccurate information. The survivors are unaware that there are teams within their area working to secure the countryside of the dead. They are explicitly told that they should seek out the rescue centers and not wait for help. They chose to trust the newscasters and this led them down a risky set of activities. If they had instead waited for the sheriff’s posse on the first floor of the house, they would have been able to alert the posse of their state as survivors before they were in as much danger. The slow, careful emergence from the basement as Ben made at the end of the film would have surely meant death for some if not all of them if they had agreed with Harry’s plan.

So, Ben and several of the others decide that no help is coming but that help is available nearby. They construct a plan based around the need for transportation, and enact it. Several issues arise in Ben’s decisions at this point. Tom states that he is familiar with the truck though he still struggles to get it started. Ben’s assertion that he is unfamiliar with it strikes a wrong note as he had driven it at least a few miles to get to the farmhouse. Judy, at the last minute decides to come along. This addition to the team wouldn’t have necessarily caused a problem, but the unplanned nature led to a more hurried escape then they may have otherwise experienced. Ben over-reacts to this hurried nature, firing at the locking mechanism on the gas pump, leading to a leak that inevitably catches the truck on fire, due to Ben’s careless placement of the torch. These issues, though inadvertent and based on Ben’s situational awareness, led to a much worse situation for the group.

Was Ben a good leader? Ben identified an issue, built support for it, and enacted a plan. Ben, however, did not seek or receive group consensus on the actions. The women in the film are not given their own agency (a film can only I have so many progressive elements I suppose) and thus their reactions to their own circumstances are, in part, treated as independent of the influence of the male protagonists. The women accept orders but are not necessarily happy about it or share their own thoughts fully (except for Helen though she serves as Karen’s nurse for much of the film and is therefore out of consideration). A better leader might have tried to determine what other’s thoughts were about his plans. Instead, Ben is strong and firm, but ultimately leads an unsuccessful attempt to fuel the truck. As I mentioned earlier, the premise of the mission was less necessary than the survivors thought (rescuers appear the next morning) but I can’t help but think that more careful consideration by Ben could have made all the difference.

It is hard to tell how we will each react in stressful circumstances, many of which we experience are not nearly as dangerous as those faced by the protagonists in Night of the Living Dead. But, creating a positive leadership mentality of consideration and analysis can help encourage us to default toward better decision making practices in general, especially in high stress situations. Taking some time to think through whether or not all opinions are heard in an everyday circumstance takes thought but is easy. Taking that same action in a high stress environment may be tougher, but is just as valuable if there is time to consider multiple options.