Leadership lessons I learned from video games

Applying the leadership lessons learned from video games to IT team management — examples from my experience and the biographies of other people.

I became a tech team leader in 2014. I had no idea what to do. Everything was new to me.

The worst thing in my new position was that I had no plan to educate myself. Thus, I started to read nonfiction books about management and I watched a lot of management talks from other professionals in this field on YouTube. I learned that a good manager is a good leader and a leader has people that follow him.

When I read a lot of books about management, philosophy, and psychology, I realized that you can learn how to lead from every situation in your life. For example, you can learn it in a gym from your trainer, from movies and even from video games.

Let’s discuss leadership lessons from video games with examples from my experience and other persons' biographies.

Focus on your goal

Goals give you a destination point that you need to reach. They help you to track your progress, discover problems, and give you a clear vision for reaching your goal. Goals can help you in every area of your life such as your job, your professional field, and personal life.

Once you have set goals for your project every team member should keep the focus on them. Focusing can help you to activate all abilities in your brain, such as learning, awarenesses, problem-solving, and decision making. Your team will solve problems faster when each team member focuses on one thing for a certain period of time. Sometimes people can forget about project goals, and it’s a leader’s responsibility to remind them of their key tasks they should be focused on.

Once we had an enterprise project with a slow-release cycle. The main thing was that we didn’t build it from scratch by ourselves. The project was new to us, and we made a lot of changes that were needed to deploy to production. Unfortunately, the codebase had a lack of unit tests, and we weren’t sure that our changes wouldn’t break anything. We decided to have a business trip and work on-site in order to decrease the feedback time of our actions and to react faster if anything went wrong.

We had a plan for deployment and discovered almost all risks. We planned our deployment for the upcoming weekend and this was the ideal time to deploy it because we had no users online.

One of my team members, let’s call him Mike, was worried about deployment and shared his concerns with us. He told us that we could break everything, and we would be unable to roll back the changes. Also, we didn’t have the necessary information in the log files to fix it. This situation was not likely to happen, but I thought that we could fix it if it occurred.

I used Kratos’ quote from God Of War 4 game

Do not concern yourself with what might be. Focus on what is, and always remain vigilant.

Kratos (God of War PS4)

I played this game before our trip and this quote was quite funny to me and I didn’t know that I would use it at work. The colleague of mine said ‘okay’ and started to prepare the deployment.

Deployment went smoothly without any problems. After a few days of monitoring and fixing small bugs, we determined that deployment had finished successfully. On the last evening, Mike came to me and said, “Thank you. Your words were useful for me”. After a small chat, I understood that a simple phrase can make another person confident. Also, he felt supported by his team.

The leader should keep focused on a team’s goals and dispel a team’s fears, doubts, and uncertainty. Two other areas that a leader needs to be aware of when leading a team are decision making and taking responsibility.

Decision making and taking responsibility

There are a lot of great leaders in the world. Most of them changed our lives and our attitude on some topics. One of them is Nelson Mandela. He is a remarkable example of a great leader. He was a South African revolutionary who ended the apartheid regime in his own country. In addition, he was elected as President of South Africa in a fully representative democratic election. He took responsibility for the anti-apartheid campaign and it was one of his goals in his life.

— A man chooses; a slave obeys.

Bioshock

Mandela could not choose to end apartheid, but he chose to end it. He was a leader who cared and didn’t obey the regime as others did.

As a leader of a team, you will always make decisions and when you make decisions you need to have as many options as you can to choose the right decision. For example, you have a project with a big backlog and tight deadlines and you realize that you will never finish all the tasks in the backlog by the deadline. You have many options on how to deal with this situation such as talking with your customer to cut features, focusing on the most significant features, or doing something else. However, it’s possible if you carry out the customer’s orders your team will be overloaded and this can lead to the emotional burnout of your team members.

The great example of decision making and taking responsibility is a Jocko Willink’s story he gave on his TED Talk about extreme ownership. He told a great story about taking responsibility for the consequences of the entire situation. In his story, the actions were during the war in Iraq. There was a fog of war and his battalion opened fire. In the end, a friendly Iraqi soldier was shot and one of his soldiers was wounded. The commanding officer said that they need to shut down all operations and Jocko needs to prepare a debrief. “Who is responsible for what had happened?” was the key question in the debrief. Jocko realized that as a senior man on the battlefield he is responsible for everything that happens. Also, he shares lessons learned after the debrief. When he took responsibility by taking ownership of the problem the commanding officer started to trust him even more and so did the team, and they realized that he would never shirk responsibility.

— Even the good leaders make poor decisions. It is the best leaders who take responsibility for them.

Kratos (God of War PS4)

Jocko is an example of a good leader. He gave me a clear understanding of taking ownership.

When I started to own all problems of a project and shared this point of view within a team everything became easier. It means that we are all responsible for the outcome of a project. When a team owns a project they think differently. For instance, when a team is responsible for everything in a project they care more about quality, about incidents concerning production, and they strive to have a project without problems, while before that they can look the other way and disregard some problems. The team acts more proactively and I even had suggestions from the team to talk to customers in order to gain time to decrease technical debt.

— We all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us.

Andrew Ryan (BioShock)

The success of the project depends on the manager and all choices you made give you a result that can lead to success and failure. Let’s talk about how we can deal with failures.

Retrospect

When you take responsibility for the project’s success as a leader it means that you’ll fail sometimes. People deal with failures differently. Some of them take them as lessons, while others take them seriously.

There are a lot of stories about failures of successful people you can find on the Internet. Michael Jordan missed 9000 shots in his career. The first book about Harry Potter was rejected by 12 major publishers. One of Stephen King’s most successful books, Carrie, was rejected by 30 publishers. As you can see, most of them didn’t give up and continued achieving their goal.

How to deal with a possible failure? Okay, one way to deal with it is to face your fear and accept that you’ll fail anyway. There is a chance that it won’t happen, but most of the possible failures become real. When you accept that you will fail you can change your interpretation of it. You can act differently and you can see that failure is not as bad as you imagined; and when it’s not bad as you imagined you can be patient when you deal with consequences.

You need to accept your failure and learn from it. Failure is a necessity for learning and you need to correct your behavior, find all errors you made, and find a solution on how to not repeat them. That’s how you’ll become better.

Don’t be sorry, be better.

Kratos (God of War PS4)

Dealing with black boxes

Atreus: We will fight? Why?

Kratos: Because you are afraid of it.

God of War PS4

Let’s imagine the situation when you need to take a project from another team. The project runs in production and has a lot of users. It was implemented poorly and had no tests and no documentation at all. The last team disappeared. You have no one to ask questions, and you need to implement features for the system. Also, you need to gather a team for the project.

Once you’ve onboarded new team members to the project, newbies will be afraid to change anything because they will suffer from a lack of documentation and tests in the project. Even if they will get a working copy of a project on their machines, they will be afraid to deploy their changes to production because they are not sure that they wouldn’t break anything.

As a leader, you should help your team to solve problems. You need to facilitate discussions, testing, and deliver value. You need to have working sessions, discover risks of changes, and reduce fear in the team by taking responsibility. For instance, you made a change, but your teammate is afraid to deploy it. He feels very uncomfortable in this situation. As a manager, you can push him to deploy it by taking responsibility for his action. You can say that you’ll inform customers, and we can roll it back if anything goes wrong.

Conclusion

The leader needs to constantly improve his skills. Also, he needs to focus on his and the project’s goals, making decisions and taking responsibility for them, learning from his failures, and opening black boxes. As a leader, you can find leadership lessons almost everywhere in your life. You can find them in the gym, in movies and even in video games. You can find a lot of wisdom in video games’ stories that apply to real life.

Develop your skills and prosper.

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