Everything I Know About Leadership I Learned from Gaming

Sometimes, when people learn that I am a gamer, I get a funny look and the comment “Wow, you don’t look like a gamer.” Appearances aside, I tell them that yes, in fact gaming has provided me with some of the most valuable, informative experiences in my adult life. I wanted to write a post to illustrate that point.

Leading vs. Managing

There’s a lot of talk about “leading” versus “managing”. You can probably imagine for yourself the difference if you’ve ever had a micromanaging boss, or known someone who was a natural leader.  One article I found summed up a few key points:

Leaders vs. Managers
Innovate Administer
Eye the horizons Eye the bottom line
Originate Imitate
Do the right thing Do things right
Effective Efficient

To me, a lot of the difference lies in the long-term, aspirational nature of a leader, as opposed to the self-centered, short-term approach of a manager.  A leader cares deeply, a manager is trying to get something for themselves. Not to say a leader is totally altruistic, but they often put the needs of others ahead of the needs of themselves, which is why they are trusted by their community.

But leaders are not always just born.  Leaders are forged over time and tested, like in any great hero’s tale.  Often, they fail, and this helps them to learn.

Background – My Experiences

I was what you would call unpopular in grade/high school.  It was a combination of being “weird”– I liked things many folks did not, Star Wars especially– and brazenly opinionated.  I was lucky enough to have a few friends who accepted and cared for me, though, even cherished my oddity. A lot of these friends consider themselves geeks and are big participators in the games community.

One such friend introduced me to the world of gaming in the form of Live Action Role Playing.  I remember, when he showed me the website for the game he’d learned about, saying that it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.  I made a costume, strapped some foam swords on my back, and took my first steps into a world that I didn’t know existed before, filled with imaginative, hopeful people.  The gamers.  The people like me.

The reason I give you this context is because it was critical to my development.  I found a group of people who bolstered my confidence, and in roleplaying I found a method for being able to learn and make mistakes without having nasty real-world consequences.


The following are some important lessons I learned about being a leader from my experiences in creating/running games over the past 12 years.

1) You have secret skills

And you may need to push yourself outside your comfort zone to find them.

An anecdote:

In my first live action game, I was playing a character that was an elf that had lived hundreds more years than I, an 18-year-old girl, had.  She was confident, calm, and collected, and faced danger without blinking. I was none of these things when I took on the character, but I aspired to be.

One day, our town was under attack by a necromancer that had plagued us for years, and things were looking grim. People were on the verge of giving up and I knew that someone needed to say something to get people to rally around our cause.  I stood and delivered an eloquent and rousing speech, hardly believing that the words were leaving my lips.  People cheered, and I felt like a rockstar.  I had never done anything like that before, and could scarcely believe that I had it in me.

I learned that I was capable of speaking publicly and helping/inspiring others in this way, something I had never known, and that gave me the confidence to do it in my real life.

The application to leadership:

Leaders need to work to find out what secret skills they may have. Not everyone’s leadership style is the same, nor should it be. It may take some experimentation to find out what your strengths are, and how to best use them to benefit yourself and those around you.

2) Work with the best

Also known as garbage in, garbage out.  As an aside, there is some fascinating reading about geek social fallacy that talks about the social constructs present in gaming groups and how it can set up destructive social structures if people are not careful. This goes beyond just geek/gaming culture, and can also be an interesting application to a business.

An anecdote:

Once, I was running a game with friends in which there was a particular player that complained about everything we did, no matter how much we bent over backwards to do something to make that player happy.  For months, we agonized over how to get this player to be happy, so they could stop slandering our game and stop dragging others down with them.

Eventually, we did the thing we should have done all along, we told the person that they were causing a problem, and that if they did not stop, they would be asked to leave.  They did not stop, and we asked them to leave the following month.

After this player left, the game improved for players and GMs alike dramatically.

The application to leadership:

Working with people you respect is important whether you are a manager or a worker. We all have different roles and responsibilities, and having good cohesion on a team is critical to your happiness and success. When someone isn’t working out, it is better for everyone in your entire organization if you ask them to leave. It’s hard to do, but ultimately one of the most important things you can do.

3) Learning to fail with grace

You are not always going to be right, in fact, you are going to mess up. A lot. We’re human, it happens.  More important than being correct, however, is learning how to recognize your mistakes, learn from them, and make a change.

An anecdote:

In another live-action game I was running, my fellow GM’s and I had decided to have an epic even occur that would change the world that the players lived in forever.  All this was good and well, but the players didn’t have any choice in the matter. We had scripted things out far too much, and so when the players were the recipients of a negative consequence for a plotline they had been railroaded into, they were livid.

And they were right to be so.  What we had set up was a lose-lose situation, and we had effed up. We got lots and lots of negative feedback about this action and we realized our mistake.  We then did the only thing you can do in that situation: we admitted our mistake and apologized.

As a result, we didn’t lose a single player. In fact, we gained players from that point on because people so respected our admission and willingness to be adults about handling their complaints.

The application to leadership:

The people that work for you and with you will respect you much more for admitting a mistake, changing your behavior, and moving on than they will for sticking to your guns. You should never go into an argument unwilling to see the other side, or you will end up frustrating those around you. This doesn’t mean be a pushover, but it means you should assume good intention, and work from that premise.

Bringing it Together

I’ve seen people run games like managers instead of leaders, and I’ve seen business people run their companies like it’s a game. Neither is good. Neither tends to succeed for long, and ultimately, neither is creating something of lasting value.

Our goals, as leaders, should be to create lasting, important things that make others happy; whether it is a game, a product, a service, a community, an event, or anything else. Sometimes that takes failure, sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you need to sever ties, sometimes you need to grow them. Sometimes you need to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and just DO it. The journey is always worth it.


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