A is for Adventure Time and Abe Lincoln: A PRIMER ON LEADERSHIP (Part 2)

Read PART 1 here.

Part 2: Alternate Tracks- On Leadership and Trolleys

Most of you are probably familiar with the Trolley Problem, and now there’s an episode of The Good Place about it, but, for those who aren’t, here’s the gist:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:

  • Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  • Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.


What do you do?

It’s a tough question, to be sure, and, originally, it was arguably harder. Here’s the older form of the problem that’s more directly tied to the point of this article:

Phoenix Wright: Ace Ethicist

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Is it an ethical course of action? Should you do it anyway?

These are usually phrased as tests of ethics, but they also can, and should, be used as tests for leadership. The difference is what you’re looking for: A perfectly ethical person is not necessarily going to be a great leader, or vice-versa. You’re going to be focused not just on why they reached a conclusion but also how they reached it. Here’s how people will answer:



A non-leader will try to avoid the decision. They’ll try to stay out of it, or they’ll pick the course that requires the least action, because it puts them under the least scrutiny. They don’t want the responsibility. This is usually associated with the answer of “I’ll do nothing, because then it’s not my sin.” People are dead, but you didn’t kill them, so it’s someone else’s fault because you chose not to choose. In Adventure Time, this is the average candy kingdom citizen.



Note: A bad leader is not inherently a bad person, though it often works out that way. A bad leader will put the responsibility on everyone else, but still be the one making the decision and getting the glory when things go right. Why couldn’t the people on the tracks have freed themselves? Why is the mob not listening to reason? In Adventure Time, this is the King of Ooo. Literally. When the first tragedy strikes the Kingdom following his election, he immediately questions whether or not it was his fault (IT WAS), but responds with the eloquent: “Once again, my saintly nature has compelled me, unthinking, to assume the burdens of others. But a true justice demands a true accounting. And truly this is all Bubblegum’s fa-aa-aa-ault!”


Augustus got results

Note: A good leader is not inherently a good person, though it often works out that way, at least in retrospect. A good leader will have an answer by the time that the switch must be pulled, or the man must be executed. They may not pull the switch, but they will make a decision and take the responsibility onto themselves for the consequences of a person or people dying. They’ll accept the legal challenge for it. They’ll know that they are the one responsible for the death, no matter what. In Adventure Time, this is closer to Bubblegum. She usually makes the decisions, and she takes responsibility for the Candy Kingdom’s welfare and safety. At many times during the series she risks her own life and happiness just to make life better for her citizens, even though they often directly call her a jerk for the way she does it. She may do things that are questionable, but she doesn’t shirk her responsibility to do them.

She’ll be on the front lines of almost any fight


What makes a great leader is something that has been, and will continue to be, debated without end, but within this framework, I submit that the answer is: Someone who will know they’re not only responsible to the person or people killed, but to all the people who are impacted by it. You’ve just taken away a friend, a lover, a brother or sister, whatever. You had to make that decision, but you also have to accept that there is NOTHING you can say that will justify it to them. You may have saved 10,000 lives at the expense of 1, but you understand that, to the family of that 1, you made the wrong decision, and to the families of the 10,000, they’ll quickly forget it because life moves on. You get less credit than you deserve, and you take more blame than you deserve. That’s part of leadership. You have to understand that, and you have to make the decision anyway. This is a nightmare, and it’s why so few people have the fortitude to do it. Most just have to separate themselves and only accept the responsibility that comes from it immediately.

One person is never just one person. Five people is never just five.

Part of the consequence of accepting these levels of blame, but the primary benefit of it, is a clarity as to the real impact of the decisions. It is the ability to see the wide effects in both the short-term and the long-term. A “good” leader who accepts the responsibility only for the direct results of their actions is likely only to consider the effects up to the legal and immediate. It’s human nature to not consider as much beyond personal interest. The problem with this is that, even if they make the decision, by not considering the full scope of the effects, or a smaller scope than a better leader would, then that inherently lowers the quality of the decision itself.

Quick reality check: Most of the time, the ultimate decision won’t be changed based on the scope. Small decisions do have relatively limited impact beyond what is immediately apparent, and, ultimately, some amount of decision-making economy compels a limit to how much time someone can consider the issue before making a decision. If a large group of people are making the same decision, then it can become significant, but, that’s a separate issue.

For leadership with larger-scale vision, come back tomorrow.

Welcome to the Grouch on the Couch’s ABCs. This will be a monthly series until I can get a rhythm going… and figure out all of the letters. F*ck you, you try finding 26 topics connected by letters.

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