PrepperPsych 101: Overcoming the One Big Flaw in Having a Strong Leader

Being a Lone Wolf prepper is an extra risky business.  Practically, you can only really attend to one thing at a time, and no things for about a third of each day.  Sleep must happen. You also have trouble with jobs that require more than two hands, or hands more than six feet apart… funny how that works.  You are limited to the strengths and bound by the weaknesses of a single individual.  Psychologically, it’s still a bad idea for most people.  Humans are social creatures by nature; many of us lose our sense of balance and of purpose if left alone.  Prepping, then, is best done in groups.

That does introduce the problem of group dynamics.  There’s no room for dysfunctional relationships in a crisis situation.  Dominance contests, passive aggression, backbiting, and rule by committee are flatly counter-productive or at least too slow in some circumstances.  Many groups therefore settle on the solution of having one strong leader.  The approach has its strengths, certainly.  Decision-making and deployment can be rapid and it’s easier for people to know their job and thus do their job.  There is a big flaw inherent in the Strong Leader approach though; so it’s best to plan a way around the problem.

The flaw is that if the leader is too dominant, it can silence the other voices that have their own wisdom and observations to contribute.  Now you’ve backtracked into the land of being limited to the strengths and weaknesses of one person again.  There’s a way to avoid this. 

Salty and I learned a rule during cave dive training; it’s so valuable we’ve made it a general household rule:

Any diver can call the dive, at any time, for any reason.  

If one buddy gives the thumb up during or even before a dive (in that context it means ‘go up’ rather than ‘all’s well’), the other buddy isn’t asking why, that buddy is confirming the call and turning his nose for the exit.  

No recriminations, no name calling, no peer pressure to ‘suck it up’ and go on.  The dive is just done.  

Sure,  it can be discussed later, and if you don’t like the pattern of a buddy’s decisions you may quit buddying up with him; but that’s not in the heat of the moment and it’s done respectfully.  

Why is this relevant to prepping?

Accident analysis reveals that very few disasters have a single cause.  The pilot didn’t just ‘oopsie’ and fly into the side of the mountain.  He was flying to an airport with a challenging layout.  A sudden storm degraded conditions as they approached.  The instrument that had shown some minor intermittent glitch progressed to complete failure.  The flight crew was extra low on sleep due to previous delays.  The co-pilot knew the approach was wrong, but phrased his objections so tentatively and diplomatically that the distracted pilot didn’t get the hint.  And then the pilot flew the plane into the side of a mountain. (True story)

Most disasters arise not from one problem, but from a whole series…that no one feels free to call to a halt. Thanks to Potjernik* for the pic.

There’s a common thread in the airplane disaster story.  There was an expert who was in charge.  There were others, less experienced but supposed to be helping.  The others ignored their own judgment to rely on the assurance of the expert.  But hey, sometimes even experts are wrong.  In diving, the detour to get around that is to have every diver take ownership of the dive, and know she can call it if it doesn’t seem right to her.  

A big part of the ‘any diver can call the dive’ rule concerns the aftermath — or to be more precise, the lack of an aftermath; the part about no recriminations.  Human psychology has some quirks that tend to make us do stupid.  One is our need for approval.  It’s not just teenagers who take bad chances because of peer pressure or not wanting to look ‘chicken’.  Your companions will make better choices if they trust you not to poke at them for not being bolder.  You’ll make better choices if they treat you similarly … or failing that, if you do the grown up thing and follow your judgement.

From inside your own head, the biggest threat to the ‘call the dive’ rule is the problem of sunk costs.  “If we turn back now, we’ll have to retrace several miles to take the alternate route.”… followed by an attempt to drive over a water-covered road is an example of sunk cost fallacy.  And sunk car fallacy, perhaps.  Sunk costs reflect time/money/effort already invested.  We humans hate abandoning them.  Have you ever met someone trying to sell a house or boat or whatever for way too much money?  He explains ‘he has to get out of it what he paid for it’ but since he’s charging way over market value, he can’t sell the thing as it continues to depreciate.  He’s enslaved by the fallacy of sunk costs.  It’s hard to look past sunk costs to make good decisions, but you’re less likely to compound your errors if you’re at least aware of the tendency and try to avoid it.

Losing the sunk costs beats losing the sunk car.

How does this help in an emergency, when action is required?

This rule doesn’t mean there is no leader and all is anarchy, and it doesn’t mean that everybody should be second guessing every decision.  It relies on the people involved being willing to carry through on group plans until and unless it becomes clear that the plan isn’t working. It does mean that every person has the right and responsibility to speak up when problems are observed rather than going along with the flow of a bad idea.

It’s not risk I’m against, folks; it’s badly considered risk (else I would never scuba dive in caves).  One of the things stress does to you is sharpen your focus.  That has an obvious upside – hey, kinda cool to be able to get your whole brain figuring out how to deal with the bear charging your way, right? – but it’s also got a down side called ‘tunnel vision’.  If the Lone Leader gets tunnel vision and misses something important, there’s big trouble…unless someone else Calls the Dive.  In this case, ‘calling the dive’ can mean keeping the mental flexibility to switch to a new course when the original one isn’t working.

In sum, keeping the policy of ‘Any diver can call the dive at any time, for any reason’ reduces our tendencies to do stupid because of social pressure.  It helps us keep our options open to choose the best course under changing circumstances.  It stops us from silencing important voices because they’re not the one most expert (or most dominating) member of the group.  It helps keep the critical balance of flaws from collecting without someone interrupting the progression.  It would have kept that plane out of the side of that mountain, and it deserves to come up out of the water.

  • By Potjernik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

NOTE: This article contains some information that has been previously included in past articles on 3BY, expanded, updated and revised.




  1. never knew that about the diving buddy, that is a good SOP. In my area the problem isn’t a too strong of leader, it’s every group that forms thinks it has to be some sort of militia or community based patriot group. I miss the old days of survival groups. Even the current MAG I’m in now is constantly getting sucked into becoming one of we aren’t careful with who we let in.

    • The problem with most MAGs that form is they are too caught up in prepper fiction and believe that real life will unfold the same way. They don’t consider that some of what they are reading is done to make a good storyline. That is one reason I formed my MAG around my family.

    • jh, I haven’t talked to anyone about their non-family MAG. What sorts of agreements do you all make, if you don’t mind the question?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *