What leadership styles will help you survive a zombie apocalypse?

Use zombies in your leadership teaching to make things fun, fresh and exciting for youth while also learning how to survive a zombie apocalypse.

Supplies for zombie game

Teaching leadership to youth can be challenging, especially when trying to keep the teaching fresh and fun so that the youth are not just being talked at from the front of the room. Michigan 4-H bases their programs after the 4-H Guiding Principles. Two of those guiding principles are: Youth are actively engaged in their own development and youth are considered participants rather than recipients in the learning process. Using these two principles, along with the love of zombies in today’s world and adapting a game from Rutgers Cooperative Extension, “How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse,” a new game came to be. The outline below will walk you through the rules, supplies and tips for gameplay.

For the start

  • Assign 5-6 zombies for the start of the game.  (The game needs to have at least 25 participants total to be effective.) 
  • Place all other participants into groups of 5-6 members. (Change the number of groups depending on size of group but must have at least four groups to be effective.)
  • Randomly assign at least two members from each group to be injured.
  • Assign 1 adult attendant to each safe house with the master point sheets (this is the person teams will check in with once they enter the safe house).


  • Armbands (I like to use the plastic rolls of colored marking tape for electric fences found at farm supply stores, they rip easily). Armbands need to be tied around the bicep area of all the participants and be fully exposed (not under clothing).
  • Craft sticks (popsicle sticks). Colored blue for water, red for food and orange for first-aid supplies.
  • 3 buckets (blue, red and orange to match the color of the craft sticks).
  • Duct tape for zombie-free zones.
  • Air horn
  • Stickers to signify each group (different set of stickers per group).
  • Band aids for the injured.
  • Newsprint with the ground rules (see section below) printed on them for the wall.
  • Newsprint with the actual rules (see section below)—two blue, which represents water, one red, etc.
  • Newsprint with food pictures to be placed throughout the playing area (at least five).
  • Newsprint with types of leadership: democratic, dictatorship, laissez-faire and servant leader (hidden until the big reveal after the game is over).
  • Discussion and reflections questions for the end.
  • Candy to hand out at the end for youth to eat during the reflection time. Use chewy candy such as starburst or taffy because it takes time to chew and calms them down after all the excitement.
  • Whistle

Ground rules

  • No running. ONLY fast walking.
  • Do not grab, trip or hold other players.
  • Do not run into other players.
  • If your armband is removed, you must report to the coordinators.
  • Humans cannot cover up their armbands.
  • Be respectful to each other.

This game has two main roles: humans and zombies. The human groups must follow a set of rules to accomplish the goal and to survive. Each group should be given 5 minutes to strategize once their leader has returned from receiving their secret assignment.

Human rules

Every team must elect a leader. Later during debrief, ask what type of leader they were. Have the chosen leaders go to a secluded area where you can assign their leadership role, answer questions and make sure they understand the importance of staying in the assigned role without telling their team. I suggest using the four leadership styles: dictator, democratic, laissez-faire and servant leader. To learn more about those leadership styles, see “What makes a good leader? Part 1” and “What makes a good leader? Part 2.”

Every team must get two blue sticks that represent water, one red stick that represents food and one orange stick for everyone that has an injury, which is represented by a band aid on their name tag.

Once you have collected your items, go to the safe house. A safe house attendant must be placed in the safe house in order for the groups to sign in with them.

Points are awarded for everyone in your group that gets there safely. If everyone in your group survives the round, your team gets an extra 15 points.

Stay in the safe house until everyone is either in the safe house or has been turned into a zombie. The coordinator will let you know when that is and that will end round one. The coordinators will then start round two and send participants out again. The coordinator can determine how many rounds they want to play before starting over and replacing all the armbands on those out of the game. Three or four rounds is usually enough so that the enthusiasm of the game continues.

If a zombie rips off your armband, go to the main room and report to the coordinator. You do not get to become a zombie on the loose until the coordinator sends you.

Zombie rules (at the beginning—will change as game progresses)

It is best to preselect youth to serve as zombies from the start of the game and go over the rules with them in a separate area. Start with the beginning rules below. As the games progresses, allow them more flexibility without informing the non-zombie participants. For example, zombies may take two running steps before walking, and/or zombies may work together, and/or zombies may enter safe zones and linger in doorways and in the end, they may enter the safe house.

Also, continue to send more zombies out as participants report to you after losing their armband, but don’t send all of them. This should be a slow process until the last round when you can send them all. During the debrief, you can connect the rules always changing to life and how frustrating it can be. Ask the participants how they adapted and what worked for them.

  • Try to take the armbands off of the humans.
  • When the air horn sounds, all zombies must go to a food on the wall, touch it and count down from 5 before returning to the game.
  • You cannot grab, trip or hang on to anyone. Just simply pull their armband off.
  • Zombies cannot hang out in one area, they must keep moving and cannot hang around doors.
  • Zombies must stay out of the zombie-free zones, which are marked with duct tape on the floor.

When youth hear the whistle blow, they know a new round has started. When the whistle sounds twice, the game is over and youth need to report to the main room.

After the game is over, it is very important to debrief all the players. For helpful debriefing questions and tips, see “How to survive a zombie apocalypse: The debrief.”

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