LOST Lessons of Leadership: What the Island Taught Me About Heroic Character

Part of ongoing series: Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God:  Celebrity and Servant Leadership in an Age of Self Promotion.

Like all authoritarian leaders, Sawyer understood that a leadership position is often wielded very much like a gun

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Critically-acclaimed and wildly successful, culture watchers consider LOST one of the most influential TV shows of all time

I admit it. I’m a huge fan of ABC’s hit series LOST (2004-2010). My son gave me the first season DVDs as a Father’s Day gift right before I boarded a plane for a conference at Yale University. After a late night arrival, I checked into my turn-of-the-century dorm room, fired up the trusty laptop and watched the first episode…alone.  I was completely hooked from the opening slate. [1]

I was also terrified. The juxtaposition of the Island’s tropical beauty with its forlorn isolation evoked some sort of Jungian identification in my soul. The polar bear and that pilot-munching “monster” only added to my sense of disorientation. By the time the first episode ended with a THUD and that eerie theme music, I was completely creeped out.

Lost and alone in a strange dorm room in a college town, I gave LOST my highest horror-film honor—I slept with the lights on!

LOST: A Study in Leadership?

The survivors of Oceanic Airlines flight 815 find themselves on a mysterious island and in desperate need of leadership

Curiously, the most influential aspect of LOST in my own life is its unique insight into the nature of servant leadership. One of the key story lines of LOST’s first season is the tension between Jack (Matthew Fox) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) for leadership of the small band of plane crash survivors desperately seeking to balance the twin goals of survival and rescue.

With the plane’s crew and captain missing (or killed in first episode), Jack and Sawyer step into a profound leadership vacuum with radically different approaches to leadership.

 Sawyer Got a Gun

Jack and Sawyer’s struggle for control of the band of survivors is a central plot line of season one.

To Sawyer, leadership is about getting his own way, and the means to his end is gaining control of the only advanced weapon to survive the plane crash: an air marshal’s pistol. Once Sawyer gets the gun it is only a matter of time before he begins to use it to impose his agenda and well-being as the group’s first priority.

This is the nature of all authoritarian leadership. It is a lesson that Jesus of Nazareth laid out in his understanding of leadership nearly 2,000 years ago. St Mark records an extraordinary encounter between Jesus and two of his disciples–James and John–who approach him in search of positions of authoritarian power.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten (other disciples) heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.  Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you!”

-Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 10:35-43)

To Jesus, an authoritarian leader is someone who seeks to leads by virtue of his or her position over people–whether that position of advantage is gained by virtue of wealth, heritage, connections, talent, or luck.  To “lord it over” someone as Jesus calls it, is to attempt to subjugate them and control them.  This kind of leadership typified the Roman Empire-“the rulers of the Gentiles” in Jesus’ day.   First Century Israel was an occupied nation.  The disciples knew all too well the Roman cruelty and taxation that had already attained infamy in their excess.  By virtue of their position Roman soldiers and official could demand service from any civilian they chose.  Clearly Rome did not rule for the good of her subjects but for the glory of Caesar and his favored subjects.

Authoritarian leaders understand that a leadership position can be wielded very much like a gun

The Goal of Authoritarian Leadership

Like all authoritarian leaders, Sawyer understood that a leadership position can be wielded very much like a gun. Genuine leadership— “The skill of influencing people to work enthusiastically toward goals identified as being for the common good”– is the farthest thing from Sawyer’s mind.[2]

The authoritarian leader leads by using their position of power to force others do as she pleases. She accomplishes this by “exercising his authority over” his followers.  She has gained the upper hand by virtue of her wealth, privilege, status, or influence and uses her position as leverage against others to force them to do her bidding.  As George Mallone puts it,  “people who have spent all their energies getting to the top now let others feel the full weight of their authority . . . They are preoccupied with position.”[3]

This is clearly the aim of James and John. They reason that a dual vice-presidency in the kingdom of God is just the ticket for the ultimate power trip.  Yet their very request reveals a deep misconception of the nature of true leadership–a misconception that Jesus quickly corrects.

The Limitations of Authoritarian Leadership

Sawyer’s use of the “Gun” of authoritarian leadership quickly devolves into a power play for control

To the authoritarian leader, power and position are synonymous. Without position they have no power.  Without power, they cease to be a leader at all.  No one would follow them. When Sawyer loses control of the gun, he loses control of the group. As Dan Allender explains, “”You may obey a leader who has power and authority, but you will not strive to serve her or the cause of the organization unless you respect and care for her in addition to the ones with whom you serve.[4]

In short, as Season 1 begins, Sawyer is in the words of Stanford University professor Robert I. Sutton an “asshole”(an actual scholarly designation).  Assholes are profoundly ineffective leaders who “travel through life believing that they are inspiring effective action when, in fact, it only happens during the rare moments they actively impose themselves on underlings.”

The moment the authoritarian leader turns their back (or gun) their influence plummets.  Until then, followers “learn that their survival depends on protecting themselves from blame, humiliation, and recrimination rather than doing what is best for their organization.” Assholes are often praised for their short-term results, but their long-term impact nearly always devastates any group they lead. [5]

Sadly, such ineffective authoritarian leaders are all too common, whether in ancient Rome, a modern corporation, college, church, or synagogue… or even a tropical paradise. 

Next Post in Series:

LOST Lessons of Leadership 2 – Jack and the Position of Power: A Study in Servant Leadership

Previous Posts In Series:

Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Higher Education Responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Icons of Heroic Celebrity: TV Writer Chris Easterly Guest Posts on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

The Paradox of Power: A Cure for the Cancer of Pseudo Celebrity?


[1] For those who missed LOST’s premise, ABC TV provides the following introduction: “LOST – Out of the blackness the first thing Jack senses is pain. With a rush comes the horrible awareness that the plane he was on tore apart in mid-air and crashed on a Pacific island. From there it’s a blur as his doctor’s instinct kicks in: people need his help. Stripped of everything, the 48 survivors scavenge what they can from the plane for their survival. A few find inner strength they never knew they had.  The band of friends, family, enemies and strangers must work together against the cruel weather and harsh terrain. But the intense howls of the mysterious creatures stalking the jungle fill them all with fear. Fortunately, thanks to the calm leadership of quick-thinking Jack and level-headed Kate, they have hope.  But even heroes have secrets, as the survivors will come to learn. From J.J. Abrams, the creator of Alias, comes an action-packed adventure that will bring out the very best and the very worst in the people who are lost.” (ABC/MARIO PEREZ

[2] James C. Hunter, The Servant: A simple story about the true essence of leadership (New York: Crown Business, 2008).

[3] George Mallone, Furnace of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL:  Inter Varsity Press, 1981), p. 82

[4] Dan B. Allender, Leading with a Limp: Turning your struggles into strengths (Colorado Springs, Colo: Waterbrook Press, 2006).

[5] Robert I. Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t (New York: Warner Business Books, 2007).