Last year I had a great time volunteering at Denver Comic Con (DCC). I ran around, did what people told me to do, got to be part of the machinery that let tens of thousands of people have a great weekend. And I got to see a bunch of stuff for free! It was a good time. The head of the department I was in most of the time was impressed enough by me that he recommended me for a management-level position for this year, and I accepted.
First surprise – it’s not very fun to be management. When you’re a low-level volunteer, the management-level guys are quest-givers, and you get to go on fun quests! “Stand here and do this thing!” “Go run there to deliver this message and bring back these supplies!” “Check the badges of all the people in this line!” It was a cool IRL video game. You know why there aren’t any games where you play the quest-giver? Cuz it ain’t that fun. A lot of your time is simply giving out the quests. Then more of it is checking to make sure the quest is being completed (correctly, or at all). Then some time is spent checking with every PC to make sure their quest is progressing OK and they don’t need more help. And all the time you’re getting random questions about the quests which you aren’t really sure how to answer. You’re literally making up the answers on the fly, trying to keep the whole thing running as best you can.
I already knew this, from various reading and talking with people, but over the weekend it was really driven home: The most important skill of leadership is good acting ability. Specifically, you have to be good at acting like you know what you’re doing and have complete confidence in your actions. When someone asks “Hey, can we take pictures?” and this was never discussed in any previous meetings or trainings you get to snap back immediately with a confident “Sure, as long as there’s no flash” and pretend that it’s official policy you’re quoting.
Really the most amazing part of all this is that it works. People defer to the guy in charge simply because he is in charge. It’s the craziest damn thing. Someone said “Hey, you wanna be in charge?” I said “OK”, and boom – people are acting like I’m someone that needs to be deferred to. This isn’t that surprising in the case of volunteers, since they did sign up to be part of this game. We all agreed I’d play the role of quest-giver and they’d play PCs, so it’s part of the play. What surprised me is how the thousands of general attendees deferred to me in exactly the same way, if not more so. After every panel I’d approach the stragglers and say “Excuse me, I need you to clear the room for the next event.” When knots formed near egress doors I’d interrupt the group and say “Excuse me, we’re moving a lot of people through this area, I need you to move along.” Every time I expected push-back.* Not once did I ever get any. In almost every case people responded *immediately* like I was the school principal or something. A couple times there was some reluctance, but they didn’t actually protest or resist, they simply complied a little slower.
I think the radio helped a TON with this. As a management-level volunteer I had a radio clipped to my belt and a conspicuous earpiece. It looked official as hell. The thing itself was a pain in the ass, it was always interrupting my train of thought and 95% of the chatter didn’t apply to my team. But the psychological effect was astounding. (yes, I realize that being a tall white male probably helped as well) It was the costume that made the role complete. As long as I kept up the appearance of confidence and authority, people seemed to instinctively follow my orders. I didn’t even have to exert any effort beyond the acting, the compliance drive was entirely within themselves. It was like flicking a switch.
But I know I was just acting, and so it was exhausting as hell to keep it up for 12 hours straight. I can see why the ruling elite is a social class. This sort of thing would be much easier for someone who’s been raised from birth to believe that s/he should be in charge. Acting takes effort, it’s a constant strain (although it probably gets easier with practice). If someone wasn’t acting, if they internalized that role as part of who they are naturally and simply expected to be deferred to at all times, they could do this constantly without much strain. It’d be a hell of a social hack, and a massive advantage. Likely not just for them but also for their entire team, assuming the leader is competent in whatever skills and administration are needed.
Obviously this wouldn’t work with a hostile group. Everything went smoothly because everyone there wanted to have a good time with minimal hassle. But it astounded me just how easy it was to become the guy in charge. And I wasn’t even that high up the ladder.
Next time: a few specific experiences.
*Ok, by the time Sunday rolled around I had kinda gotten used to this, and wasn’t as surprised anymore.