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Victor Jih's Amazing Race Blog: Leaders & Followers

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Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic

On the Amazing Race, as in life, there are leaders and there are followers.

This week, these diametrically different roles were on full display as the remaining teams travel 1,200 miles to St. Petersburg, Russia. The detour tasks this week were particularly difficult: Teams choose either “classical music” or “classic cinema.”

For “music,” teams enter ballrooms filled with dozens of pianists playing simultaneously to identify Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Tchaikovsky’s Troika.

For “movie,” teams sift through piles of film clips to find ones from Sergei Eisenstein’s famous Russian film October.

Difficult tasks mean extreme pressure. When the pressure is on, is it better to have a more balanced team of two followers or two leaders, or is it better to have a hybrid team with one clear leader and one follower? That is the question of the week as nearly all of the teams struggle with the tasks.

The problem with two followers is obvious: If both team members defer to one other, decisions take a long time to get made. In a race, quick decisions matter. Politeness and passivity may keep your relationship harmonious, but it will not help you win a million dollars. This is the fate that befalls Nick & Vicki.

Before you rail on me, I do not think Nick & Vicki are naturally followers. They both like to take charge. But after the debacle in Ghana, it seems like they are prioritizing their relationship over winning. Both are muting their drive in order to be nice to each other. It is great to see how much their relationship has grown, but they are almost too deferential to each other. They end up in last place, though are lucky this is a non-elimination leg.

A team with two leaders can bring its own problems. When the going gets tough, the two leaders are more inclined to fight with each other. Battling for leadership is emotionally draining and not productive.

That was the challenge for Chad & Stephanie this week. Chad naturally wants to take the lead in the relationship. As he puts it, it is hard for him to “take a back seat.” But Stephanie is strong in her own right and, without her the team would not have successfully completed the music task. It is fun to watch as two strong people succeed; but it’s uncomfortable to watch when they fight.

How about leader-follower combinations? The success of those teams depends largely on how good the leader is. When the leader is right, the team will make decisions quickly and efficiently. This week, Thomas was on his game. While every other team struggled, he quickly figured out the secret to the movie task. There was no drama this week, as Jill & Thomas race easily to first place.

The leader-follower combination gets stressed, however, when things start going wrong. We’ve seen it with Jill & Thomas in past weeks when Thomas made quick (but wrong) decisions. When the “leader” starts struggling, things can fall apart.

Consider both parent-child teams: In general, both Gary and Michael are happy to play the role of “proud father” and follow as their children make the decisions. When Mallory struggles with the music task, though, she doesn’t want the leadership role anymore. She tells her dad “you’ve got to help me.” When he asks, “What do you want me to do?” Mallory responds, “I wanted you to have a decent ear.” That doesn’t bode well for the hybrid. Michael tries to help as they struggle to find the pit stop. Kevin (like me when I was on the race) would not surrender leadership. He relents before it is too late, and they complete the leg comfortably.

Ultimately, a leader-follower combination works well, as long as the leader is right. When the leader is wrong (which is inevitable), the combination only works if the two are willing to switch roles. That’s why I think Brook & Claire work so well together. Brook is the clear “spaz” of the group and Claire is willing to follow her. But when things go wrong, the two can switch roles pretty quickly.

Nat & Kat defy description. I do not know how to describe them. On the one hand, neither of them are “followers.” They both have strong opinions and can make good decisions. But neither of them are “leaders,” since it does not seem like either one of them ever tries to take the “lead” from the other or wants to make a decision without consulting the other. It could be that they are just so competent that there has been no need for power issues to arise. Or it could be that they are just atypical human beings who genuinely like working together as a team. If so, I can see them definitely in the finale.

This is probably no surprise to fans of the race, but I’m partial to leader-follower teams with me being the leader. My sister knew this going on and, whether she liked it or not, dealt with it. I think that’s why I’m so fond of teams like Jill & Thomas. I feel Thomas’s sense of responsibility as he struggles to make the right decision, and I feel his pain when he sometimes gets it wrong. It’s hard being the leader, because it’s hard always being right. He seems to be finding his groove on the race, though, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them in the final three, too.

Tell us: Who do you think will make it to the final leg? Do you think it is better on the Amazing Race to have a balanced partnership or clear leadership?