The Old World...
For generations before the modern era there was a specific style of leader that reflected a simpler and more brutal world. In this old world, leaders were often the most commanding, belligerent and competitive individuals. These were the eras of warlords, cults of personality and overt patriarchy. Power and authority went hand in hand with the perception of vitality and vigor, strength and virility.
"Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba 2" by 竹崎季長 - 蒙古襲来絵詞. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
These were the epochs of athletics. Generations of young men, and even some women, practiced various athletics and participated in many sports, designed to replicate the activities and skills necessary to win battles in a physical world. This was a world in which conflicts were often solved through personal combat or large-scale warfare. Great leaders were often the top-ranked warriors and commanders.
Sporting became a dominant form of social activity. Athletic competitions, such as javelin, polo or wrestling, were created to mirror timely forms of combat and warfare. Young men spent a great deal of time mastering these sports, which produced a very specific, if limited, skill set common among leaders.
...And The New
That is not the world we live in anymore, at least not most of us. Our problems are often more complex than territory disputes, hunting for buffalo or raiding seaside villages.
Contemporary society is dominated by a class of people adept at solving problems, making difficult decisions, and strategic thinking. From the oval office to the boardroom, leadership has become much less about commanding and much more about thoughtful interpretation of complex situations and delegation of decision making.
Yet, sports and athletics are not worthless in a modern, global society. In fact, young people can still gain greater proficiency in some foundational skills through sports. Teamwork, communication, winning (and losing) graciously, cooperation, competitiveness — these are all things that sports can teach us, or at least reinforce, when engaged in properly.
So, the question is, how do we train future generations to master the skills necessary to succeed in a more cerebral and social world while also instilling the great lessons that sports provide? How can we adapt the old model to create more effective leaders for the modern era?
One word: games.
Okay, more like eleven words: board, card and interactive games that require strategic thinking and communication.
Training Can Be Fun!
As business and leadership needs evolve toward even more specialization, managing rapid change, collaboration and data analysis, the workforce will need to adapt as well. There may be no more effective tool for teaching and practicing the necessary skills of strategic planning, abstract thinking, rapid decision making and effective/efficient communication than playing games.
Games, much like sports, can be introduced at a young age. Families can instill a love of gaming, with a focus on games that teach or reinforce the skills that make more effective teammates. They can be adopted by children as entertainment, and within just a few years of the introduction, gaming can become part of a group’s socialization process.
Schools and employers can intentionally implement games as part of the learning and acculturation processes, helping young men and women master helpful skills while also creating a space for people to cooperate and/or compete productively.
There are, of course a few guidelines that folks should keep in mind when implementing gaming systemically into a family or organization.
First, make it a group activity. Gaming as part of a group is important for socialization and culture-building purposes. Besides, playing games alone doesn’t improve many of the soft skills that sports do, such as teamwork, cooperation, friendly competition and communication. This also means that video games aren't a substitute for board games, because video gaming is most often a solitary endeavor, often involving only remote communication.
Second, choose games that offer many ways to compete and win. If a game requires few strategies or tactics to win, then it won’t offer many interesting decisions. Once individuals learn the best (only) way to win, inherently competitive players will latch onto those methods. This can lead to less fun for everyone involved, even those who win. The alternatives are games in which many strategies are effective, and in which strategies must be adapted based on the actions and decisions of others.
Third, avoid games that rely heavily on randomness. When a game draws on chance as its primary mechanism for determining outcomes, there are very few decisions of consequence, and few lessons learned in regards to strategy and tactics. Stick to games where the results are determined by the players and their decisions.
Fourth, be sure to reflect on the experience of each game. What was most rewarding about the game? What was particularly challenging? How much fun was it? What did you learn? Just as with any other lesson, it is important to check for understanding. It is also an opportunity for team members to understand what strategies were employed in order to achieve results. Players should be interested to know what worked well, and why it worked.
Lastly, make sure to have a selection of different types of games to play. Switch it up as much as you can. Play cooperative games and competitive games. Play as teams and as individuals. Try tactical games as well as strategic games. Play long games and short games. Play games that require concrete and abstract thinking. Engage all three learning styles (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) whenever possible.
Here at SmallBox we have implemented a monthly game night. While the primary purpose is to deepen our camaraderie, the team also benefits from a greater understanding of how we each think and make decisions. We practice communicating and collaborating within a strict set of rules. We engage various parts of our brains and plow new synaptic pathways. Hopefully, we become better team members and leaders.