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The Leader of the Others is the second-most-powerful individual within the hierarchy of the Others. The Others appear to only have one leader at any given time. The Leader of the Others performs a number of duties: ensuring the well-being of the Others, protecting the Island against threats from outside, and (allegedly) talking to and carrying out the orders of Jacob. Jacob is the only individual on the Island who carries more authority than the Leader. ("Follow the Leader")
The Others have been shown to have a very specific process for selecting their future leaders. Much of this leadership selection process is overseen by Richard Alpert, who had a crucial role in the selection of both Ben and Locke as Leaders. ("The Man Behind the Curtain") ("Cabin Fever") According to Richard, the Others' leadership selection process begins at a very young age. ("Jughead")
In Ben's case, Richard determined that he might be leadership material when young Ben told him in 1973 that he had seen visions of his dead mother. Richard seemed very intrigued, and told Ben that if he was patient, he might have a place in the Others' society one day. Ben later rose to become the leader of the Others. ("The Man Behind the Curtain")
The most specific evidence of the leadership selection process is Richard's testing of young Locke. In 1961, Richard presented a variety of seemingly random objects to Locke, including a compass, a knife, a baseball glove, a "Book of Laws," a vial of granules, and a comic book. Richard then asked Locke to choose the object that "already belong[ed] to [him]". Locke chose the knife, and Richard seemed disappointed, apparently thinking that Locke was not suitable leadership material.("Cabin Fever") It is highly likely that Locke was meant to choose the compass, since a time-traveling Locke had previously given the same compass to Richard in 1954.("Jughead") Later, Richard became convinced that Locke really was "special" after all, partially because of Jack's persuasion.("The Incident, Part 1") Locke eventually succeeded Ben as Leader of the Others.
Another part of the leadership selection process, at least in some cases, seems to consist of the soon-to-be leader killing his or her own father-- an initiation rite of sorts. Ben killed his father during the Purge, although it is unclear whether he did so under instructions from the Others.("The Man Behind the Curtain") Later, Ben told Locke to kill his father, Anthony Cooper, in order to prove himself to the Others, but Locke couldn't bring himself to do it. Instead, at Richard's advice, Locke had Sawyer kill Cooper instead. After Locke returned to the Others with Cooper's body, they took him much more seriously, and not long after that, Locke became their next leader.("The Brig")
Limits on the leader's power
The Leader of the Others appears to exert dictatorial, nearly absolute power over his people. However, the leader must answer to Jacob. Also, leaders who fail to obey a specific set of rules (the exact nature of which is unknown) can be exiled from the Island, as was the case with Widmore and later Ben. Widmore was banished because he had spent too much time off Island and even had a daughter with an outsider. In Ben's case, he exiled himself by choosing to move the island, as he believed he had fallen out of favour with Jacob. ("Dead Is Dead") ("There's No Place Like Home, Part 3"). Interestingly, both Ben and Widmore returned to the Island after being banished, with Ben finding a loophole in the rules by returning with the Oceanic 6, and Widmore beign invited to return by Jacob. Richard also seems to have some ability to check the Leader's power. He serves in an advisory role, and he has claimed to be outside the jurisdiction of Eloise and Widmore. ("Whatever Happened, Happened") Richard's involvement with the leader-selection process also gives him a measure of control over the Island's leadership, even when he himself is not the leader. At least during Ben's reign, Richard's role was that of a liason between Jacob and Ben, visitng Jacob to get his orders - whcih were written down on slips of paper - and delivering them to Ben. It should also be noted that Ben claimed Widmore had never seen Jacob either, implying the two of them could have been part of a long line of leaders who had never met Jacob during their reign, or even that no leader had ever met him. This is supported by the fact that Jacob chose Richard as his intermediary between himself and the people he brought to the island, suggesting Richard was always the one who visited Jacob - not the leader. ("The Incident, Part 2") ("Ab Aeterno") The producers of Lost have compared the relationship between Richard and the Leader of the Others to that between the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.
The Leader of the Others seems to have limited jurisdiction over the Temple. Dogen the Temple Master shared little information-- even extremely important information, like the threat of the Man in Black-- with Ben, the current Leader, which suggests that the Temple may be a separate community beyond the Leader's control.
- Richard Alpert may have been the Leader of the Others in 1954. However, it is possible that there was another unknown Leader, and Richard was still in his usual advisory role at the time.("Jughead") If Richard was the Leader at this point, it is unknown who served in the advisory role that later fell to him, and it is also unknown why Richard, being immortal, ever chose to step down as the Leader.
- Eloise Hawking (left Island in late 1970s): Eloise was the Leader by 1977 at the latest.("The Incident, Part 1") Not long thereafter, she left the Island to raise her son and was succeeded by Widmore. After her departure, Eloise continued to pursue a mysterious agenda off-Island, but has not attempted to return.("316")
- Charles Widmore (late 1970s to mid-1990s): Widmore was the Leader during the Purge and presumably played a significant role in the event, although the exact extent of his involvement is unknown. He developed a rivalry with Benjamin Linus, who engineered Widmore's banishment and took his place.("Dead Is Dead") After his banishment, Widmore made efforts to return to the Island, and finally succeeded in 2007.("Dr. Linus")
- Benjamin Linus (mid-1990s to 2004): Ben was a ruthless and manipulative Leader, although he claimed that everything he did, he did for the Island.("Through the Looking Glass, Part 1") He was unable to talk to Jacob, but still tried his best to carry out his orders, which he received from Richard.("The Incident, Part 2") Over time, Ben fell out of favor with Jacob and became convinced that his duty was to move the Island. After he did so, he was exiled.("There's No Place Like Home, Part 2") Although Ben claimed that he would not be able to return to the Island after moving it, he eventually did, and killed Jacob at the urging of the Man in Black.("The Incident, Part 2")
- John Locke (2004): Locke's short-lived period of leadership began after Ben turned the wheel and moved the Island. Richard accepted and welcomed Locke as Leader.("There's No Place Like Home, Part 2") However, Locke never actually got to use his leadership powers, because he immediately began flashing through time because of the Island's time-shifts, while the rest of the Others did not.("Because You Left") Locke left the Island via the Orchid and was killed before he could ever actually serve the Others in a leadership capacity.("The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham") However, the Man in Black later took on Locke's form and used Locke's authority as Leader to convince Richard to take him to Jacob.("The Incident, Part 2") After using Ben to kill Jacob, the Man in Black seems to have continued masquerading as Locke to the Others. He then led those Others whom he didn't kill in the Temple Massacre.("Sundown")
As of 2007, there is no true Leader of the Others, and it is unclear, due to the high casualty rate of The War, whether the Others as a society continue to exist.