Leadership Lessons from the Most Unlikely Place

Leadership Lessons from the Most Unlikely Place

By Amy Wartham, Director of Corporate and Custom Training at UNC Charlotte


“Stop looking at the floor, mom. Okay, good.”

“Stop looking at the ceiling, mom. Okay, good.”

“Now follow me.”

“Where are you?”

“Right there.” 

“Right there, where?”

“I’m right there next to you.” 

“Ooooh, there you are! Wait... where are you?”

With the stay-at-home order in place to flatten the curve of COVID-19, I’ve found myself playing more video games with my son and there’s one undeniable truth that I’ve come to realize. 

I suck at video games. No, seriously, I’m not saying that to get you to tell me otherwise. I really do suck. The only logical reason I can come up with to explain my poor performance is that I’m missing video game DNA. Yea, that’s it. 

On the flip side, I’ve learned that playing video games actually takes a lot of leadership skills, or you… will... die. Thankfully, my job doesn’t put me in life or death situations, but here are a few of the leadership lessons I’ve learned

You have to be strategic. You have a map with the dots and the compass to give you some direction, but they can only take you so far. Knowing your overall mission or game objective is paramount to your survival. You have to know where you’re going and determine the best way to get there. Choosing the wrong landing point on a made-up map may seal your fate and you… will… die. Being strategic also includes weight management. You can only carry so many items at a time. But the real question is… are you carrying the right items? A rifle is not going to blow up a tank, regardless of how many times you shoot it. The same is true with work. You have to be strategic on which projects or priorities to take on and do you have the right tools to tackle those tasks. 

Leadership Lessons from the Most Unlikely PlaceYou have to consider the possibilities. I know, I know. I just said be strategic - that your life depends on it, but you also need to explore the map to know what your options and possibilities are. In a game, going off in a random direction can sometimes show you something pretty cool or interesting. You don't have to go straight to the destination. You can meander a bit and look around. By taking some time to explore, you may find your perspective changes and you find an alternative way to achieve your goal. 

You have to be good at problem-solving and decision making. Crap, there are 16 zombies coming at me from all different directions all at once. Which one do I kill first? Do I run or do I hide? Do I purchase this gun now or later? Do I have enough bullets to get me through this round? Which weapon is the most effective? How do I steal that chopper? What’s over that hill? How does my hair look?

Playing games encourages creative and quick thinking – a study in California (that was later replicated by the BBC) has actually shown that playing video games helps older people improve and maintain their cognitive function. I’m still undecided about this data. 

You have to collaborate. For the Battlefield V game we played, we were on teams of three or four. Most of the time, I was the first player to get killed. My teammates would come back and revive me. When I got the opportunity, I would do the same for them. 

Leadership Lessons from the Most Unlikely PlaceSome of the players wear headphones and I overheard one of the kids say, “Oh great, we’ve got somebody’s grandma on our team.” First of all, I’m not a grandma. And second of all, you shouldn’t talk bad about grandmas - they’re awesome. However, after hearing that, I wanted to be a better player. I didn’t want to let a bunch of 12-year-olds down. 

Just as in work, you have to recognize that all your teammates may have different strengths. 

You have to be open to feedback. My son has been a great coach while teaching me how to play video games. He understands that my eye-hand coordination isn’t that of a 12-year-old and that I will inevitably freak out when I’m pinned down and getting eaten alive by zombies.  

However, he’s patient with me when he tells me for the tenth time that the joystick on the right is to look around and the joystick on the left makes me move forward. (or is it the other way around?) He explains what we’re doing, where we’re going, and why we’re going that way. He anticipates what’s coming and prepares me for it and when I do mess up, he gives me constructive feedback that helps me in the next game. He uses encouragement and positive reinforcement to help me learn from my mistakes. Good communication and being open to feedback is a key skill needed for video gaming - just as important as it is in the office.  

 Although I’m missing video game DNA, I’ve come a long way since the days of Pong and Pac-Man. Now, sit back, relax, and watch me waste some zombies. 

If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of gaming, consider checking out Jane McGonigal’s Gaming Can Make a Better World TED Talk or send me an email at awartham@uncc.edu to discuss our leadership training options.


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