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Leadership Lessons from Zombieland: Know Yourself and Your Strengths

I love movies – they’ve been a constant companion in my life during times both good and bad. Over the course of this pandemic, I’ve looked to film for lessons on how to best manage myself during the chaos of the apocalypse. While the doomsday scenario we’ve recently been confronted with might have felt more like the movie Contagion, the one that really hit home for me during all of this is Zombieland.

For movies set in worlds unique from our everyday lived experience, a key to success is that they establish rules to inform viewers of how that world works. For example: if you stay perfectly still, the T-Rex will (most likely) not eat you; or the first rule of Fight Club is don’t talk about Fight Club. Zombieland though is more explicit than other films when it comes to presenting the rules of survival for its unique world, as its 32 rules serve as a central thematic element throughout the film.

While being a financial advisor doesn’t (technically) require us to know how to survive the zombie apocalypse, the movie’s iconic set of survival rules are good ones to live by. While all the rules presented are rich for discussion, I want to focus here on possibly the most important rule of all: “Don’t Be a Hero.” In Zombieland, this means don’t risk your own life just to make yourself look good. In financial services, this means don’t risk your own career or organization’s reputation to save face or boost your ego. 

But not being the hero isn’t as easy of a charge as simply taking off the cape. To gain deeper understanding of the mental battles at play here, let’s consider a couple of cognitive biases that shine a fresh light on why many leaders struggle to delegate and effectively manage teams, along with how we can thrive in chaos despite these biases.

The Lake Wobegone Fallacy was perfectly illustrated by John Jacob Cannell’s report on all 50 states’ elementary school performance in 1987. The report stated that all schools were above the national average—and no one batted an eye. But the point of an average is that some fall below it, some fly above and the middle settle into that beautiful bell-shaped curve.

The name for this fallacy is a nod to the popular radio broadcast from the same period, A Prairie Home Companion, which was set in the fictional town of Lake Wobegone. One of the host’s more memorable taglines for the show, delivered deadpan, was that Lake Wobegone could boast about its residents that all women are strong, all men are good-looking and all children are above-average.”

The fallacy Cannell showed through his study was that despite the mathematical impossibility for all of us to be above-average at everything, we collectively overestimate our capabilities across spheres of knowledge.

Just like in Zombieland, chaotic or high-pressure situations at work can put us into autopilot, making us even more susceptible to acting on our unconscious biases. That’s why it’s important to ask yourself, and to answer honestly, “what am I exceptional at?” or “what is my organization best at?” I can guarantee the answer won’t be everything. By exploring our abilities as individuals and teams in this way, we can define the things we could use help with. Once you are clear on what those needs are, hire and delegate to the appropriate people to fill those needs and take over that portion of the work. At a macro level, this is why integrations are happening left and right within fintech—smart players in the industry know that no one solution can do everything above-average.

Along similar lines, the Dunning-Kruger Effect describes our tendency to overestimate our competency and knowledge, particularly in fields that we have less expertise in. A groundbreaking study conducted in 1999 at Cornell University by David Dunning and Justin Kruger highlighted how the less familiar someone is with a skill, the greater the disparity in how much they will overestimate their competency in that same skill. Conversely, the study showed that true experts tend to underestimate their ability due to their more accurate gauge on what they don’t know about their field of study. The phrase “You don’t know what you don’t know” has never been truer.

In work, this effect can be caused by our need to feel capable, by the high priority placed on confidence, or by the mistaken belief that our experience in an unrelated area can be transferred over to another. In general, expertise is specific. For example, being a renowned filmmaker doesn’t mean you can repair a car engine or solve calculus problems intuitively without being taught how.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Oh no, am I a Dunning-Kruger?” remember this: we all kind of are. This bias is driving people to play the hero when they shouldn’t in every domain; you are not alone. And, there are ways to combat it. Here are a few:

  • Fight back against your pride: there is always the possibility that you are wrong and additional information could (and should) change your approach. In some cases, this may mean delegating responsibilities to others to empower them.
  • Focus less on being the devil’s advocate in meetings or on FinTwit and be your own devil’s advocate instead—interrogate your own assumptions about your skillset, strengths and weaknesses and look for points you may have gotten wrong.
  • Ask for feedback often, and from different perspectives. Be open to constructive criticism, avoiding defensiveness.
  • Say yes to that refresher on the basics to stay competent in your field; true experts know that revisiting the fundamentals is often necessary.

When you choose to play the hero, you risk overextending yourself unnecessarily to the detriment of your team—the opposite of the result you want. Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Harvard University, once said: “Your most important task as a leader is to teach people how to think and ask the right questions, so that the world doesn’t go to hell if you take a day off.”

You are not the only one capable of doing the work up to your standards, and people will appreciate you more, not less, for taking a step back and trusting them to succeed on their own.


Rick Williamson is the Director of Training at Redtail Technology  

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