Leaders and followers
Going feral with FANTASTICLAND
This past week I had the pleasure of reading FANTASTICLAND, a novel by Mike Bockoven. The book, published in 2016, is a faux oral history about a fictional theme park that is hit by a massive hurricane. A staff of a few hundred is left trapped in the abandoned park for five weeks. When the calvary arrives, though, the rescuers find that the staff of mostly young people has gone feral - breaking off into tribes and engaging in full-on pillaging, murder, rape and other heinous acts of barbary. Through a series of interviews with the park’s survivors, Bockoven weaves together an exploration into the fragile tether that connects people with their civility.
Reading FANTASTICLAND brought back memories of another recent LORD OF THE FILES rift - YELLOWJACKETS, Showtime’s television drama about a group of teenage girls who crash in the Canadian wilderness while flying to a soccer tournament. The show features an amazing cast of actresses including Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, Sophie Thatcher and Sophie Nélisse to play the Yellowjackets soccer team at various stages in their life. Like the theme park staff in FANTASTICLAND, the teenage girls - left to their own in the woods - find their manners put on pause.
Reading FANTASTICLAND this past week and watching YELLOWJACKETS earlier this year both caused me to ponder how I would fair in a similar situation. If I found myself cut off from civilization and forced to fend for my life with only my wits and survival knowledge, would I be able to start a fire without a match (yes, as long as I had a bit of steel wool and an “E” battery) or would I be eating raw human flesh within a fortnight? Would I be a leader or a follower?
I was a Boy Scout for most of my youth and, while it has been a long stretch of time since I tied a knot, I do feel I have what it takes to put up a fight against the icy grip of death if put into a survival situation. Don’t get me wrong - Bear Grylls I am not. I can lash together some poles, I can turn a leaf into a compass, I know rudimentary first aid skills and which snakes and plants to avoid, and I know that if you eat too much rabbit you’ll shit yourself to death. I also have a natural tendency to lead. Whether this is a survival instinct or not is up for debate.
At the risk of sounding like a motivational speaker, in life there are leaders and followers. Being a leader or a follower has its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to workplace scenarios and survival situations. Being a leader means you naturally take charge, you delegate, and you take the onus of making sure the things that need to get done get done, even if you have to be a pushy asshole about it. Being a follower means that you never have to put a target on your back as a pushy asshole and risk your team turning on you and eventually killing you. Survival narratives are littered with the bodies of leaders and the followers who rose up to take them out of power.
Since I was young, I found that I have a natural tendency to put myself into leadership roles. Even when I try and make a conscious choice to not be a leader in any given situation, my gut instinct takes over and I find myself stepping to the front of the group. The problem is that, while being a leader may come naturally to certain people, being a good leader takes time to learn. And - believe you me - I took my sweet-ass time learning how to be a good leader.
I think back on some of the mistakes I made in my first few swings at leadership and can’t help but cringe. I was a micro-management monster, a passive-aggressive panther, a gossip goblin and any other alliterative allocations you want to bestow. The point is, I sucked at leading a team of people until, one day, I realized I didn’t.
I truly believe the key to being a good leader is not wanting to be a leader. Anybody who is too eager to lead other people should not be trusted. Meanwhile, the best leaders are those that actively try and shirk their responsibilities but know, when the chips are down, they must step once more into the fray. It took me actively hating the idea of leading other people to realize what makes somebody a good leader - patience, the support that comes with trust and letting people fail a little bit, compassion and empathy, and the knowledge that, in the end, we’re just tiny specks of dust within the infinite universe of time and space and nothing that we do *really* matters that much.
Reading FANTASTICLAND only drove home how masochistic a decision to be a leader is. You’re setting yourself up for impossible decisions, assassination attempts and a cannonball to the head (literally). That said, I know that if I ever found myself trapped in a theme park with a hundred social media-starved teenagers in the aftermath of a hurricane, I’d probably find myself pulled into some kind of leadership position. It’s just in my nature.
I’d hate it every step of the way, but at least I wouldn’t micromanage their daily raids on the rival tribes’ stash of food, weapons and women. I may be a leader, but at least now I’m a pretty good one.