Laser Tag and Leadership: Deciding who to promote!

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Today I read this great article about deciding who to promote to leadership positions and decided to share it on my blog.

Laser Tag Leadership

This article is written by guest blogger, Dr. James Eyring

Companies move people into leadership positions all the time. Frequently, they make good decisions and advance good leaders. Sometimes, they make mistakes. They might promote a good technical person, only to find that the person can’t lead people. Or, they might promote a senior leader, only to discover that the person can’t drive successful change.

Recently, I was reminded why this sometimes happens while watching my daughter and her friends play laser tag.

My daughter loves playing laser tag, so it was no surprise that she asked for a laser tag party for her birthday. I chaperoned her and 18 of her (sometimes screaming) friends to a local park for the game.

Now, most laser tag parties follow a fairly standard routine for choosing teams. The birthday boy or girl gets to choose a team of his/her choice, or the birthday boy or girl and his/her friend take turns picking others into two teams. Maybe it is the psychologist in me, but I have never liked either option. So, we chose (i.e., I forced) a solution so that we had 4 random groups of kids. These groups were then combined into different teams every couple of rounds. That way, almost all of the kids got to play with and against each other.

After a couple of rounds, I asked one of the instructors how the kids were doing. She pointed to a girl from one of the teams and told me, “she is the natural leader for this team.” True enough, when a round started, she would plan a strategy, rally her team to it, and then assign everyone responsibilities. They listened and followed instructions. They lost. When the teams were mixed up, she still emerged as the leader. Her team lost 7 out of the 7 games the kids played. The instructor still thought she was a “good leader.”

Years ago, I saw the same dynamics while running a simulation for professionals called Lost at Sea. Individuals rated how they would use different items to survive a shipwreck. The group would then have a discussion of their rankings. Sometimes, a leader would emerge to guide the group to a final answer. In some groups, the emergent leaders led their teams to successful solutions. In other groups, the leader would actually cause the group to perform worse than they would without a leader. Just because someone emerges as a leader does not mean they are a good leader.

Too often, I hear HR leaders speak about a manager as a great leader because he/she speaks well or strongly expresses his/her views. I call this the “standing out in the crowd” model of leadership. Managers who don’t stand out versus their peers are not seen as leaders.

There is nothing wrong with standing out in the crowd. Some leaders who do this are very effective. However, not all emergent leaders are effective. More importantly, some individuals (including women) are less likely to be chosen as emergent leaders. Choosing someone who stands out may result in overlooking a good leader who does not.

So, don’t rely on “emergent leadership” when making decisions about whom to promote. Instead, look for leaders who can lead a team to success. If a manager has best in class business results, strong engagement scores, and low employee turnover, he or she is a good leader regardless of whether they stand out in a crowd.

Back to more important matters…laser tag. My daughter’s team won every game they played, even though the team members were mixed up every couple of rounds. What was the secret of their success? The team assigned my daughter as their leader because it was her birthday. As a team, they discussed everyone’s ideas and listened to those who had played most. They put simple strategies in place, and won.

My daughter did not stand out in the crowd, but when her team asked her to be a leader, she did a great job. I am proud of her because she listened to her team, asked questions, and helped them implement ideas. She helped the team succeed.

© 2012 Organisation Solutions Pte Ltd.
About the Author: Dr. James Eyring is the chief operating officer of Organisation Solutions, a global consultancy specialising in organisational design, development and change solutions worldwide. James has more than 20 years of experience in the field of Organisational Development and his areas of expertise lie in large-scale organisation design and change, leadership development, and the design and management of distributed organisations.

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