Seth M. Spain Ph.D.

The Dark Side of Work

What Would Optimus Prime Do?

More than meets the eye in leadership and followership

Posted Apr 26, 2015

My colleague Peter Harms and I usually collaborate on research into the dark side of personality and work experiences. Sometimes we get to contrast that directly with the bright side. Recently, we worked together on a chapter set to appear in a book edited by Birgit Schyns on leadership lessons from compelling contexts. We chose to examine the ways that narratives, especially those transmitted in popular media, could play a role in the construction of children’s (and adults’) stereotypes of good versus bad leaders. While we use examples from many places, including the Iliad, we focused on Transformers—why, you may well ask. 

//creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Sham Hardy (Flickr: Optimus Prime) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the major reasons was that the Transformers toys provide us with character data sheets listing each Transformer’s standing on a variety of physical and mental traits, as well as the character’s rank within his faction. For those who are not initiated, The Transformers is a franchise of toys, animated series, comic books, and live action movies about a species of sentient, shape-changing robots, originating from the planet Cybertron. Two factions, the “brutal” Decepticons and the “peace-loving” Autobots, have waged a civil war for eons. They eventually find themselves on present-day Earth, and continue their fight while trying to obtain enough resources to return home and end the war.

Each faction has a supreme commander: the Autobots are led by the wise and caring Optimus Prime, while the Decepticons are led by the cunning and cruel Megatron. By examining how the character’s ranks are distributed within each faction, and how rank is related to various traits from the data sheets, we are able to empirically identify the leadership and followership lessons that the manufacturers of the toys were communicating to their audience.

One thing worth noting was that rank was more flat among the Autobots. While the Decepticons were more hierarchically structured, with a small, elite group of leaders, the Autobots had slightly higher average rank and slightly smaller variability in rank. We believe that this communicates that “good” groups should be relatively flat, that their leaders, like Optimus Prime, should be seen as primus inter pares—first among equals. In contrast, “bad” groups are shown to be more vertical, with a supreme leader ruling essentially by fiat.

The second notable finding was that, just like in the real world, intelligence was an excellent predictor of rank. On the other hand, the magnitude of the association between leadership and intelligence was much larger than that of real-world studies.  This is consistent with some other findings that Peter and I are currently working on, that seem to show that people are fairly good at getting real-world patterns of stereotypical beliefs correct, but greatly exaggerate the magnitude of differences (this seems consistent about a variety of possible beliefs). Interestingly, we found that courage was not particularly predictive of higher rank among the Autobots, but it was for Decepticons. The Decepticons are generally depicted as cowardly and self-interested, so it is possible that those displaying more stereotypically noble character, those that show a willingness to sacrifice for their group, are accorded more prestige, because it is so unusual. On the other hand, the Autobots are presented as “not being fighters.” As such, to fight when they’d prefer not to fight, all Autobots tend to display a fair amount of courage, meaning that there’s not a lot of variability in this trait, so there’s little explanation to be found in it for rank. In fact, the Autobots are more courageous than the Decepticons, on average, and 19 Autobots had the maximum courage rating, compared with just 4 Decepticons. The Autobots possess this attribute in abundance, but it does little work in determining who becomes a leader in their faction. This was part of a broader story. The two supreme commanders, Optimus Prime and Megatron, were generally exceptional characters, compared to the rest of their factions. Not only were they more intelligent and skilled, but generally surpassed the others (though, Megatron was not notably faster than his subordinates).

Since Transformers was aimed at children, the leadership schemas it presented were somewhat simplistic. We believe that both the good Optimus Prime and the evil Megatron are so-called paternalistic leaders. This means that their leadership takes the form of a parental authority figure to their followers. We argue that Megatron is an authoritarian leader, who rules his followers with an iron fist and demands (but does not always receive) strict obedience. Optimus Prime, on the other hand, is more benevolent, and can be viewed as an authoritative parental figure. His subordinates know that he cares for their well-being, and that his orders represent an attempt to achieve a greater good.  We would expect this contrast in leadership styles to lead to the organization of the factions as described above (flat or horizontal for the Autobots and hierarchical or vertical for the Decepticons), since Optimus Prime readily shares his authority, while Megatron jealously guards his.

Further, the Transformers television show provides considerable models for followership. Two of the most popular Decepticons, Shockwave and Soundwave are presented as being loyal, constructive, industrious followers. On the other had, Starscream is an opportunist, always looking for a way to overthrow Megatron.  Starscream is also the series’ best example of an incompetent follower, as his actions directly precipitated the war beginning afresh on Earth (accidentally causing Optimus Prime and the rest of the Autobots to be revived). Most of the Autobots are presented as enthusiastic and loyal followers, but the Dinobots have their share of insubordination and incompetence – they’re good at fighting but not really at following. It’s easier to just aim them in the direction that destruction will help the cause than trying to reason with them or order them around.

We believe that Transformers presents three key lessons about leadership: 1) flatter groups are more successful—sharing power is more valuable than trying to use power for the selfish benefit of oneself, 2) in general, leaders tend to be exceptional people, and finally, 3) intelligence (cognitive ability and skill) is a particularly important attribute for a leader to have. These messages align well with the current academic literature about what kinds of individuals emerge as leaders and what it takes to be effective as a leader.

In terms of followers, we believe that Transformers shows how important it is for a leader to have good subordinates.  Even evil leaders need good workers, and the show clearly illustrates this by the sheer number of times that Megatron’s plans fail because of the insubordination, incompetence, and lack of loyalty among his followers. On the other hand, Optimus Prime is generally successful, in part because of the trust he can place in his followers. There may even be lessons about servant leadership. When the worst happened, a surprise attack by the Decepticons on the Autobots’ home base before they could raise their defenses, Optimus Prime sacrificed his life to stop the Decepticons (in Transformers: The Movie from 1986).

In general, we argue that the figures from stories that people encounter when they are children can be powerful guides to their understanding of social norms and their development of scripts and schemas of such concepts as leadership and followership. In addition to simply helping us to understand how these concepts develop for individuals, this process could help us to de- and reconstruct leadership beliefs—these stories can be useful examples and opportunities for education! For instance, I have recently tried to use Spider-man to help convey the importance of ethics in leadership. Spider-man’s core lesson, which is well-known through the long publishing history of the character, the cartoon shows based on him, and the recent live-action movie franchises, is that “with great power comes great responsibility.” What is leadership, if not power? Such lessons are, if nothing else, evocative. We have similarly tried to use the narrative of “zombie apocalypse” stories, like The Walking Dead, and games built around that narrative, to examine leader behavior and decision-making.

In the end, Optimus Prime is a character that many people know well. Well enough to come up with answers when faced with the question, “What would Optimus Prime do?” Thinking in this way should lead them to place trust in their followers and to place their followers’ well-being ahead of their own desires. This is a simple question that can generate helpful strategies for being a good leader, not just an effective or successful one. So, while none of us may be able to turn into a semi-truck, we can follow Optimus Prime’s lessons in other ways. 

By Sham Hardy (Flickr: Optimus Prime) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons