Unexpected Leadership Lessons from — Big Brother?

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By Josh Gold, CAE, CMP
Executive Vice President

Leadership lessons can come from the most surprising sources. Take, for example, reality TV — or, more specifically, that fixture of summer television: Big Brother. In case you haven’t succumbed to the temptation of this particular escape, the premise of the show is that 12 to 16 strangers move into a “house” constructed on a television soundstage. For about three months, they will live in this “Big Brother House,” with little to no contact with the outside world. “Big Brother” will be watching, as cameras and microphones record every move of the “houseguests.” They play various competitions that determine who will be “head of household” each week, who will be “on the block” to be “evicted,” and who will have the power to veto an eviction nomination. Evicted houseguests become members of the jury, who will vote for one of the two houseguests who manage to survive eviction the longest. The winner of that vote receives a half-million-dollar prize; the runner-up, $50,000.

The show is a fascinating study in human interactions, as the contestants balance competitiveness with teamwork. Early in the game, they form alliances — which don’t always work out as planned. They try to win competitions, so they can be safe from eviction and have a say in who stays and who goes. But winning too many competitions puts a target on houseguests when they are no longer in the catbird’s seat.  It’s vital to have a good “social game,” to increase the likelihood of jury votes. 

So now that you’re caught up, what does any of this have to do with leadership? Well, there are a few characteristics of BB winners and runners-up that also serve leaders well IRL (in real life).

Loyalty. Promises are often broken in the Big Brother house, but some recent winners have demonstrated that loyalty can pay off. It’s an important quality for leaders to demonstrate and cultivate, because it strengthens our teams and working relationships. Team members who are confident in your loyalty will feel secure enough to take risks and stretch beyond their comfort zones, knowing they will not be abandoned for their mistakes. 

Creativity. Big Brother houseguests have no television, internet, music,  reading material (except religious texts, such as the Bible). They pass the time by having meaningful conversations and by finding creative pastimes, from making crafts out of materials found around the house to styling each other’s hair. What kind of creative solutions would you and your team come up with if you removed distractions such as social media? 

Supportiveness.  Houseguests spend a LOT of time together, in an environment fraught with drama, and away from loved ones. It’s not unusual to see one or more houseguests dissolve into tears or tantrums. Hopefully we won’t see our team members melt down, but there will be times when they’re having a hard day, dealing with a challenging situation involving a resident, or perhaps struggling with family problems. For the moment, they might not be doing their best work. It’s important as leaders to notice, to listen, and to let them know that it’s OK to be human. 

Ability to be strategic. Successful BB houseguests have a strategy that includes taking a long view of what might happen down the road. Their short-term goal is to survive the week, but they must keep the long-term goal in their sights. That means thinking two, three, or even four steps ahead, always asking “what if” Plan A is no longer feasible. As leaders, we should always be mindful of possible threats or opportunities that could be on the horizon, and be prepared to take appropriate action should one of them become a reality. 

From time to time throughout the Big Brother season, host Julie Chen Moonves reminds houseguests that they should “expect the unexpected,” a sure indicator that a twist in the game is coming. Looking back on all the twists 2020 seemed to bring, that’s advice well worth keeping in mind.