How playing a game can make you a better leader

If you want to learn new skills and acquire new insights, the first thing that probably comes to mind is traditional theoretical instruction in a class environment. Although this method has certainly proven its worth, there are other options. Experiential learning is gaining in acceptance and it offers many advantages. Vlerick Business School is responding to this action-oriented learning with a new innovative game centred on leadership. “A lot of leadership training is based on the approach that you must first reflect on yourself before taking action. This game actually works in the opposite way. We don’t start with the major theoretical concepts and models but enable people to dive into practice whereby, during the game, they become aware of their own identity in a leadership role and learn to adapt it where necessary,” explains Professor Katleen de Stobbeleir, who developed the game in partnership with the researchers Angie van Steerthem and Dieter Melsens.

New perception of leadership

Katleen had been toying with the idea of developing a game for a long time. One aligned to a broader view of leadership development. “Many companies are still too focused on theoretical instruction that is centred on questions such as ‘what is leadership?’ or ‘how does the traditional leader think?’ Besides these traditional learning programmes, there are innovative alternatives enabling you to interpret complex issues such as learning to adapt your leadership style or learning to work beyond the boundaries.”
Moreover, this game is perfectly suited to a new movement within leadership. “In the past, the prevailing notion was ‘think like a leader, act like a leader’. Now, you see the opposite development: ‘act like a leader, think like a leader’. I am fully convinced that leadership works more in that way. You make your new role your own while doing it instead of first thinking about the type of leader you want to be and how you will tackle it.”

Just play

The starting point of the game is a realistic and concrete business case. It all begins with a short briefing about the business situation and with allocating roles. “There are twenty-six different roles, ranging from higher management to plant manager,” explains researcher Angie. “We ask people to volunteer for the roles of the CEO and the President. If there are multiple candidates we decide through a vote, with each candidate putting their case forward to the group.” Each participant receives an information pack to prepare the evening before the game. This package contains additional information about their role, their team and department, the problems they have to tackle and the strategic decisions they will need to take.

The next morning, all participants come together to play the game. The researcher, Dieter, explains the process: “The purpose is to take a few strategic decisions as a group. In order to do this, the participants must interact, while in their allocated role. At the end of the day, the decisions are presented to the CEO and the President who then in turn, with the senior management team, must justify the decisions to the Board of Directors, consisting of a number of professors.”

It’s not what you do but how you do it

During the course of the game, coaches observe the participants focusing specifically on their behaviour. After all, the purpose is not finding the correct solution or result but the way they reach the decisions. ”Why did you deal with the issue in this or that way? Why did you deliberately not consult with your colleague about something? What is behind that? In completing the game, the feedback focuses on how you acted during the game and about your natural style of leadership. This enables the participants to acquire more insight into themselves and into how they can each grow as a leader.” Katleen emphasises that there is no correct solution. “The game and the roles are purely used as a method to imitate the reality of a business in the most natural possible way. It often means working with the information you have at any given time and making decisions on that basis. Within the game, we observe how decisions arise and how people confer, interact, communicate and lead.”

The wider context around leadership

Finally, the game play is dependent on the business context in which the participants work. “Within a company organised into strict units, we see a very department-driven mindset. People are only inclined to cooperate with other business units if they first secure their own interests. If you want them to think more strategically for the entire company then you must tackle this silo mentality. With companies working more from organisational objectives, and where departments are less budget-driven, you will probably see more freeriders appear. The game therefore brings a component of the business dynamics to the fore,” explains Katleen. “Our debriefing afterwards is therefore on multiple levels. Which organisational dynamics did we observe? What played out on the various department and team levels? And finally, there is of course the individual level.”

Practical

The game does not stand alone but represents a broader process within leadership development. The target group is people with a managerial function at middle to senior level (e.g. business unit managers).
Besides in executive education, the game will also be integrated in the Masters programmes and more specifically in the special track around ‘Leadership & Change’. The game is also played within the Executive MBA, in the selective course focused on leadership.

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