The Pleasure and Promise of Games in Leadership Development and Organizational Transformation
by Rob Hartz and Juan Pablo Sanchez King May 9, 2019
Games have been around for as long as humans have inhabited this planet. They serve multiple purposes including teaching skills, imparting values, building community, and creating bonds. They even become an important part of ritual and cultural identity. We know about games. We (mostly) take pleasure in them. We test ourselves. We even see new aspects of ourselves as we watch ourselves engage with others, either competitively or cooperatively. Watching, and especially playing games, encompasses a variety of experiences ranging from the simplest, bordering on silly, to the most intense and competitive, mirroring war. If the game is at all interesting it will enthral us with strong emotions including joy, triumph, discouragement, fear, and frustration, even rage. Games simulate life and give us clues for building strategy, executing a difficult move, or engaging others in the hopes of gaining cooperation and allies.
It has been argued that games are an inherent aspect of being human. Biologist and writer Dr. Humberto Mataurana in his book (English title), Love and Play: Humanity’s Forgotten Emotions, places play alongside love as an emotion critical to human development. If, indeed, play and games are essential to our growth as human beings, why should they not also be used to teach us about leadership and change?
Together, we have been developing games that help illuminate and illustrate the psychological and emotional dimensions encountered throughout the phases of the transformation experience. If our research on transformation has taught us anything, it is that successful transformation leaders know how to gage their own emotions and are exquisite in reading the emotional landscape. Beyond simply understanding emotions, they experience them and readily reveal them. They know how to be empathic without invoking sympathy or distracting attention from the necessity of doing the work required to meet customer needs.
As we witness dozens of people playing a game we call, Scarcity & Abundance, we notice two criteria for success: 1. is there laughter? 2. Are there personal or team insights? Intermittent laughter and frequent smiles leave us with the impression that the players are engaging with the game and with each other and have to some degree let down their guards. They are paying attention to what’s going on and seem to have given up their everyday worries so that they can be fully involved. However, if laughter is the only outcome, we would say the game succeeded as a pleasurable pastime that may bring us closer together. The team that laughs together...etc.
We’ve also seen players and teams who in the course of the game or shortly afterward carry away unexpected and welcome insights. These seem to come from assistance offered by other players, by an opportunity to reflect upon their own desires and emotions, or simply by drawing a card (it is a game after all) that offers something approaching wisdom. People shift and seem to do it lightly and with appreciation. In life, insights can also arrive through bitter experience and hard-fought lessons, but this is not the case in an environment where play and experimentation are encouraged. The types of games we design are ones where the winners are the curious, the brave and the caring. In short, they reflect key qualities of the transformative leader. Therefore, a successful game is one in which we see high- levels of engagement, empathy, common purpose, and new insights that proffer new ways of doing things.
Scarcity and Abundance in Mexico: One of our early games was played in Juan Pablo’s home town of Mazatlan with leaders of a well-funded start-up. On the fourth day of a five-day retreat, we announced that the afternoon activity was a game. They reacted with interest, energy, and perhaps more than a little bit of skepticism. I was also skeptical since we were taking an intense and provocative three-hour lecture and turning it into an opportunity to not only learn the concepts, but to test them, adjust them, dismiss them, or use them to advance to the next level. Everyone participated and the interactions were genuine, sometimes self-effacing, and at times moving. (They quickly got the point; you can only win as a team). As consultant/facilitators we saw games as a way to help them reflect upon their nascent corporate culture; seeing our work as enlisting the leaders to pay attention to the affects of their culture on themselves and their many and diverse stakeholders. We both see the potential to use games or gamification as a way of testing and making real that which drives us -- models, assumptions, narratives -that also drive team and organizational behavior. We will continue our work with this client with a set of new games designed to assist a now international entity work on cross cultural issues as they rapidly bring on new suppliers and partners.
Scarcity and Abundance in Massachusetts:
Playing games on a Saturday morning with six friends in front of a blazing fire at my home in Littleton, seems like a throw-back. We huddled around a game board and moved pieces depending upon the issue that was presented. Although we looked like teenagers having fun (if you blur your eyes!), we were actually a group of accomplished leaders in both business and social organizations thinking about how transformation works for our church, our small New England City, or for some of us our businesses as agents of change (therapists, educators, and consultants). I always play and I always come away laughing and generating at least one useful insight. One friend, the one who expected very little to happen, reported afterwards that without any conscious thought or effort, she suddenly returned to playing the piano daily, a practice she had abandoned several years ago. She linked her “transformation” to a brief discussion on the role of beauty and aesthetics in life and work. She previously felt that practicing the piano was something she “should do”, while today it is a strong desire that appears to be unburdened by guilt or shame. In the domain of music, she is both productive and happy!
Another participant who coaches city leaders wrote that the game..
”was very helpful in the process of provoking and evoking transformational thoughts. It can stand alone in helping people to ‘ease from attachment’ or can be used as a great ‘how’ in helping people to use other
We continue to partner with those who design models that have the ability to develop leaders and transform organizations and societies. We believe our approach is one that allows participants the space and time to experience a new way of thinking and to have permission to identify and reveal (if they wish) their emotions in real time in a safe environment, that emphasizes individual and team learning over competition, isolation, or cynicism. The game ends, but the learning remains.