Typical survival game pattern Archives

Typical survival game pattern Archives

typical survival game pattern Archives

typical survival game pattern Archives

A Survival Guide for Leaders

Think of the many top executives in recent years who, sometimes after long periods of considerable success, have crashed and burned. Or think of individuals you have known in less prominent positions, perhaps people spearheading significant change initiatives in their organizations, who have suddenly found themselves out of a job. Think about yourself: In exercising leadership, have you ever been removed or pushed aside?

Let’s face it, to lead is to live dangerously. While leadership is often depicted as an exciting and glamorous endeavor, one in which you inspire others to follow you through good times and bad, such a portrayal ignores leadership’s dark side: the inevitable attempts to take you out of the game.

Those attempts are sometimes justified. People in top positions must often pay the price for a flawed strategy or a series of bad decisions. But frequently, something more is at work. We’re not talking here about conventional office politics; we’re talking about the high-stake risks you face whenever you try to lead an organization through difficult but necessary change. The risks during such times are especially high because change that truly transforms an organization, be it a multibillion-dollar company or a ten-person sales team, demands that people give up things they hold dear: daily habits, loyalties, ways of thinking. In return for these sacrifices, they may be offered nothing more than the possibility of a better future.

We refer to this kind of wrenching organizational transformation as “adaptive change,” something very different from the “technical change” that occupies people in positions of authority on a regular basis. Technical problems, while often challenging, can be solved applying existing know-how and the organization’s current problem-solving processes. Adaptive problems resist these kinds of solutions because they require individuals throughout the organization to alter their ways; as the people themselves are the problem, the solution lies with them. (See the sidebar “Adaptive Versus Technical Change: Whose Problem Is It?”) Responding to an adaptive challenge with a technical fix may have some short-term appeal. But to make real progress, sooner or later those who lead must ask themselves and the people in the organization to face a set of deeper issues—and to accept a solution that may require turning part or all of the organization upside down.

It is at this point that danger lurks. And most people who lead in such a situation—swept up in the action, championing a cause they believe in—are caught unawares. Over and over again, we have seen courageous souls blissfully ignorant of an approaching threat until it was too late to respond.

Executives leading difficult change initiatives are often blissfully ignorant of an approaching threat until it is too late to respond.

The hazard can take numerous forms. You may be attacked directly in an attempt to shift the debate to your character and style and avoid discussion of your initiative. You may be marginalized, forced into the position of becoming so identified with one issue that your broad authority is undermined. You may be seduced by your supporters and, fearful of losing their approval and affection, fail to demand they make the sacrifices needed for the initiative to succeed. You may be diverted from your goal by people overwhelming you with the day-to-day details of carrying it out, keeping you busy and preoccupied.

Each one of these thwarting tactics—whether done consciously or not—grows out of people’s aversion to the organizational disequilibrium created by your initiative. By attempting to undercut you, people strive to restore order, maintain what is familiar to them, and protect themselves from the pains of adaptive change. They want to be comfortable again, and you’re in the way.

So how do you protect yourself? Over a combined 50 years of teaching and consulting, we have asked ourselves that question time and again—usually while watching top-notch and well-intentioned folks get taken out of the game. On occasion, the question has become painfully personal; we as individuals have been knocked off course or out of the action more than once in our own leadership efforts. So we are offering what we hope are some pragmatic answers that grow out of these observations and experiences. We should note that while our advice clearly applies to senior executives, it also applies to people trying to lead change initiatives from positions of little or no formal organizational authority.

This “survival guide” has two main parts. The first looks outward, offering tactical advice about relating to your organization and the people in it. It is designed to protect you from those trying to push you aside before you complete your initiative. The second looks inward, focusing on your own human needs and vulnerabilities. It is designed to keep you from bringing yourself down.

A Hostile Environment

Leading major organizational change often involves radically reconfiguring a complex network of people, tasks, and institutions that have achieved a kind of modus vivendi, no matter how dysfunctional it appears to you. When the status quo is upset, people feel a sense of profound loss and dashed expectations. They may go through a period of feeling incompetent or disloyal. It’s no wonder they resist the change or try to eliminate its visible agent. We offer here a number of techniques—relatively straightforward in concept but difficult to execute—for minimizing these external threats.

Operate in and above the fray.

The ability to maintain perspective in the midst of action is critical to lowering resistance. Any military officer knows the importance of maintaining the capacity for reflection, especially in the “fog of war.” Great athletes must simultaneously play the game and observe it as a whole. We call this skill “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony,” an image that captures the mental activity of stepping back from the action and asking, “What’s really going on here?”

Leadership is an improvisational art. You may be guided by an overarching vision, clear values, and a strategic plan, but what you actually do from moment to moment cannot be scripted. You must respond as events unfold. To use our metaphor, you have to move back and forth from the balcony to the dance floor, over and over again throughout the days, weeks, months, and years. While today’s plan may make sense now, tomorrow you’ll discover the unanticipated effects of today’s actions and have to adjust accordingly. Sustaining good leadership, then, requires first and foremost the capacity to see what is happening to you and your initiative as it is happening and to understand how today’s turns in the road will affect tomorrow’s plans.

But taking a balcony perspective is extremely tough to do when you’re fiercely engaged down below, being pushed and pulled by the events and people around you—and doing some pushing and pulling of your own. Even if you are able to break away, the practice of stepping back and seeing the big picture is complicated by several factors. For example, when you get some distance, you still must accurately interpret what you see and hear. This is easier said than done. In an attempt to avoid difficult change, people will naturally, even unconsciously, defend their habits and ways of thinking. As you seek input from a broad range of people, you’ll constantly need to be aware of these hidden agendas. You’ll also need to observe your own actions; seeing yourself objectively as you look down from the balcony is perhaps the hardest task of all.

Fortunately, you can learn to be both an observer and a participant at the same time. When you are sitting in a meeting, practice by watching what is happening while it is happening—even as you are part of what is happening. Observe the relationships and see how people’s attention to one another can vary: supporting, thwarting, or listening. Watch people’s body language. When you make a point, resist the instinct to stay perched on the edge of your seat, ready to defend what you said. A technique as simple as pushing your chair a few inches away from the table after you speak may provide the literal as well as metaphorical distance you need to become an observer.

Court the uncommitted.

It’s tempting to go it alone when leading a change initiative. There’s no one to dilute your ideas or share the glory, and it’s often just plain exciting. It’s also foolish. You need to recruit partners, people who can help protect you from attacks and who can point out potentially fatal flaws in your strategy or initiative. Moreover, you are far less vulnerable when you are out on the point with a bunch of folks rather than alone. You also need to keep the opposition close. Knowing what your opponents are thinking can help you challenge them more effectively and thwart their attempts to upset your agenda—or allow you to borrow ideas that will improve your initiative. Have coffee once a week with the person most dedicated to seeing you fail.

But while relationships with allies and opponents are essential, the people who will determine your success are often those in the middle, the uncommitted who nonetheless are wary of your plans. They have no substantive stake in your initiative, but they do have a stake in the comfort, stability, and security of the status quo. They’ve seen change agents come and go, and they know that your initiative will disrupt their lives and make their futures uncertain. You want to be sure that this general uneasiness doesn’t evolve into a move to push you aside.

These people will need to see that your intentions are serious—for example, that you are willing to let go of those who can’t make the changes your initiative requires. But people must also see that you understand the loss you are asking them to accept. You need to name the loss, be it a change in time-honored work routines or an overhaul of the company’s core values, and explicitly acknowledge the resulting pain. You might do this through a series of simple statements, but it often requires something more tangible and public—recall Franklin Roosevelt’s radio “fireside chats” during the Great Depression—to convince people that you truly understand.

Beyond a willingness to accept casualties and acknowledge people’s losses, two very personal types of action can defuse potential resistance to you and your initiatives. The first is practicing what you preach. In 1972, Gene Patterson took over as editor of the St. Petersburg Times. His mandate was to take the respected regional newspaper to a higher level, enhancing its reputation for fine writing while becoming a fearless and hard-hitting news source. This would require major changes not only in the way the community viewed the newspaper but also in the way Times reporters thought about themselves and their roles. Because prominent organizations and individuals would no longer be spared warranted criticism, reporters would sometimes be angrily rebuked by the subjects of articles.

Several years after Patterson arrived, he attended a party at the home of the paper’s foreign editor. Driving home, he pulled up to a red light and scraped the car next to him. The police officer called to the scene charged Patterson with driving under the influence. Patterson phoned Bob Haiman, a veteran Times newsman who had just been appointed executive editor, and insisted that a story on his arrest be run. As Haiman recalls, he tried to talk Patterson out of it, a rguing that DUI arrests that didn’t involve injuries were rarely reported, even when prominent figures were involved. Patterson was adamant, however, and insisted that the story appear on page one.

Patterson, still viewed as somewhat of an outsider at the paper, knew that if he wanted his employees to follow the highest journalistic standards, he would have to display those standards, even when it hurt. Few leaders are called upon to disgrace themselves on the front page of a newspaper. But adopting the behavior you expect from others—whether it be taking a pay cut in tough times or spending a day working next to employees on a reconfigured production line—can be crucial in getting buy-in from people who might try to undermine your initiative.

The second thing you can do to neutralize potential opposition is to acknowledge your own responsibility for whatever problems the organization currently faces. If you have been with the company for some time, whether in a position of senior authority or not, you’ve likely contributed in some way to the current mess. Even if you are new, you need to identify areas of your own behavior that could stifle the change you hope to make.

To neutralize potential opposition, you should acknowledge your own responsibility for whatever problems the organization currently faces.

In our teaching, training, and consulting, we often ask people to write or talk about a leadership challenge they currently face. Over the years, w e have read and heard literally thousands of such challenges. Typically, in the first version of the story, the author is nowhere to be found. The underlying message: “If only other people would shape up, I could make progress here.” But by too readily pointing your finger at others, you risk making yourself a target. Remember, you are asking people to move to a place where they are frightened to go. If at the same time you’re blaming them for having to go there, they will undoubtedly turn against you.

In the early 1990s, Leslie Wexner, founder and CEO of the Limited, realized the need for major changes at the company, including a significant reduction in the workforce. But his consultant told him that something else had to change: long-standing habits that were at the heart of his self-image. In particular, he had to stop treating the company as if it were his family. The indulgent father had to become the chief personnel officer, putting the right people in the right jobs and holding them accountable for their work. “I was an athlete trained to be a baseball player,” Wexner recalled during a recent speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “And one day, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Football.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m a baseball player. ‘And he said, ‘Football.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know how to play football. I’m not 6’4”, and I don’t weigh 300 pounds.’ But if no one values baseball anymore, the baseball player will be out of business. So I looked into the mirror and said, ‘Schlemiel, nobody wants to watch baseball. Make the transformation to football.’” His personal makeover—shedding the role of forgiving father to those widely viewed as not holding their own—helped sway other employees to back a corporate make-over. And his willingness to change helped protect him from attack during the company’s long—and generally successful—turnaround period.

Cook the conflict.

Managing conflict is one of the greatest challenges a leader of organizational change faces. The conflict may involve resistance to change, or it may involve clashing viewpoints about how the change should be carried out. Often, it will be latent rather than palpable. That’s because most organizations are allergic to conflict, seeing it primarily as a source of danger, which it certainly can be. But conflict is a necessary part of the change process and, if handled properly, can serve as the engine of progress.

Thus, a key imperative for a leader trying to achieve significant change is to manage people’s passionate differences in a way that diminishes their destructive potential and constructively harnesses their energy. Two techniques can help you achieve this. First, create a secure place where the conflicts can freely bubble up. Second, control the temperature to ensure that the conflict doesn’t boil over—and burn you in the process.

The vessel in which a conflict is simmered—in which clashing points of view mix, lose some of their sharpness, and ideally blend into consensus—will look and feel quite different in different contexts. It may be a protected physical space, perhaps an off-site location where an outside facilitator helps a group work through its differences. It may be a clear set of rules and processes that give minority voices confidence that they will be heard without having to disrupt the proceedings to gain attention. It may be the shared language and history of an organization that binds people together through trying times. Whatever its form, it is a place or a means to contain the roiling forces unleashed by the threat of major change.

But a vessel can withstand only so much strain before it blows. A huge challenge you face as a leader is keeping your employees’ stress at a productive level. The success of the change effort—as well as your own authority and even survival—requires you to monitor your organization’s tolerance for heat and then regulate the temperature accordingly.

You first need to raise the heat enough that people sit up, pay attention, and deal with the real threats and challenges facing them. After all, without some distress, there’s no incentive to change. You can constructively raise the temperature by focusing people’s attention on the hard issues, by forcing them to take responsibility for tackling and solving those issues, and by bringing conflicts occurring behind closed doors out into the open.

But you have to lower the temperature when necessary to reduce what can be counterproductive turmoil. You can turn down the heat by slowing the pace of change or by tackling some relatively straightforward technical aspect of the problem, thereby reducing people’s anxiety levels and allowing them to get warmed up for bigger challenges. You can provide structure to the problem-solving process, creating work groups with specific assignments, setting time parameters, establishing rules for decision making, and outlining reporting relationships. You can use humor or find an excuse for a break or a party to temporarily ease tensions. You can speak to people’s fears and, more critically, to their hopes for a more promising future. By showing people how the future might look, you come to embody hope rather than fear, and you reduce the likelihood of becoming a lightning rod for the conflict.

The aim of both these tactics is to keep the heat high enough to motivate people but low enough to prevent a disastrous explosion—what we call a “productive range of distress.” Remember, though, that most employees will reflexively want you to turn down the heat; their complaints may in fact indicate that the environment is just right for hard work to get done.

We’ve already mentioned a classic example of managing the distress of fundamental change: Franklin Roosevelt during the first few years of his presidency. When he took office in 1933, the chaos, tension, and anxiety brought on by the Depression ran extremely high. Demagogues stoked class, ethnic, and racial conflict that threatened to tear the nation apart. Individuals feared an uncertain future. So Roosevelt first did what he could to reduce the sense of disorder to a tolerable level. He took decisive and authoritative action—he pushed an extraordinary number of bills through Congress during his fabled first 100 days—and thereby gave Americans a sense of direction and safety, reassuring them that they were in capable hands. In his fireside chats, he spoke to people’s anxiety and anger and laid out a positive vision for the future that made the stress of the current crisis bearable and seem a worthwhile price to pay for progress.

But he knew the problems facing the nation couldn’t be solved from the White House. He needed to mobilize citizens and get them to dream up, try out, fight over, and ultimately own the sometimes painful solutions that would transform the country and move it forward. To do that, he needed to maintain a certain level of fermentation and distress. So, for example, he orchestrated conflicts over public priorities and programs among the large cast of creative people he brought into the government. By giving the same assignment to two different administrators and refusing to clearly define their roles, he got them to generate new and competing ideas. Roosevelt displayed both the acuity to recognize when the tension in the nation had risen too high and the emotional strength to take the heat and permit considerable anxiety to persist.

Place the work where it belongs.

Because major change requires people across an entire organization to adapt, you as a leader need to resist the reflex reaction of providing people with the answers. Instead, force yourself to transfer, as Roosevelt did, much of the work and problem solving to others. If you don’t, real and sustainable change won’t occur. In addition, it’s risky on a personal level to continue to hold on to the work that should be done by others.

As a successful executive, you have gained credibility and authority by demonstrating your capacity to solve other people’s problems. This ability can be a virtue, until you find yourself faced with a situation in which you cannot deliver solutions. When this happens, all of your habits, pride, and sense of competence get thrown out of kilter because you must mobilize the work of others rather than find the way yourself. By trying to solve an adaptive challenge for people, at best you will reconfigure it as a technical problem and create some short-term relief. But the issue will not have gone away.

In the 1994 National Basketball Association Eastern Conference semifinals, the Chicago Bulls lost to the New York Knicks in the first two games of the best-of-seven series. Chicago was out to prove that it was more than just a one-man team, that it could win without Michael Jordan, who had retired at the end of the previous season.

In the third game, the score was tied at 102 with less than two seconds left. Chicago had the ball and a time-out to plan a final shot. Coach Phil Jackson called for Scottie Pippen, the Bulls’ star since Jordan had retired, to make the inbound pass to Toni Kukoc for the final shot. As play was about to resume, Jackson noticed Pippen sitting at the far end of the bench. Jackson asked him whether he was in or out. “I’m out,” said Pippen, miffed that he was not tapped to take the final shot. With only four players on the floor, Jackson quickly called another time-out and substituted an excellent passer, the reserve Pete Myers, for Pippen. Myers tossed a perfect pass to Kukoc, who spun around and sank a miraculous shot to win the game.

The Bulls made their way back to the locker room, their euphoria deflated by Pippen’s extraordinary act of insubordination. Jackson recalls that as he entered a silent room, he was uncertain about what to do. Should he punish Pippen? Make him apologize? Pretend the whole thing never happened? All eyes were on him. The coach looked around, meeting the gaze of each player, and said, “What happened has hurt us. Now you have to work this out.”

Jackson knew that if he took action to resolve the immediate crisis, he would have made Pippen’s behavior a matter between coach and player. But he understood that a deeper issue was at the heart of the incident: Who were the Chicago Bulls without Michael Jordan? It wasn’t about who was going to succeed Jordan, because no one was; it was about whether the players could jell as a team where no one person dominated and every player was willing to do whatever it took to help. The issue rested with the players, not him, and only they could resolve it. It did not matter what they decided at that moment; what mattered was that they, not Jackson, did the deciding. What followed was a discussion led by an emotional Bill Cartwright, a team veteran. According to Jackson, the conversation brought the team closer together. The Bulls took the series to a seventh game before succumbing to the Knicks.

Jackson gave the work of addressing both the Pippen and the Jordan issues back to the team for another reason: If he had taken ownership of the problem, he would have become the issue, at least for the moment. In his case, his position as coach probably wouldn’t have been threatened. But in other situations, taking responsibility for resolving a conflict within the organization poses risks. You are likely to find yourself resented by the faction that you decide against and held responsible by nearly everyone for the turmoil your decision generates. In the eyes of many, the only way to neutralize the threat is to get rid of you.

Despite that risk, most executives can’t resist the temptation to solve fundamental organizational problems by themselves. People expect you to get right in there and fix things, to take a stand and resolve the problem. After all, that is what top managers are paid to do. When you fulfill those expectations, people will call you admirable and courageous—even a “leader”—and that is flattering. But challenging your employees’ expectations requires greater courage and leadership.

The Dangers Within

We have described a handful of leadership tactics you can use to interact with the people around you, particularly those who might undermine your initiatives. Those tactics can help advance your initiatives and, just as important, ensure that you remain in a position where you can bring them to fruition. But from our own observations and painful personal experiences, we know that one of the surest ways for an organization to bring you down is simply to let you precipitate your own demise.

In the heat of leadership, with the adrenaline pumping, it is easy to convince yourself that you are not subject to the normal human frailties that can defeat ordinary mortals. You begin to act as if you are indestructible. But the intellectual, physical, and emotional challenges of leadership are fierce. So, in addition to getting on the balcony, you need to regularly step into the inner chamber of your being and assess the tolls those challenges are taking. If you don’t, your seemingly indestructible self can self-destruct. This, by the way, is an ideal outcome for your foes—and even friends who oppose your initiative—because no one has to feel responsible for your downfall.

Manage your hungers.

We all have hungers, expressions of our normal human needs. But sometimes those hungers disrupt our capacity to act wisely or purposefully. Whether inherited or products of our upbringing, some of these hungers may be so strong that they render us constantly vulnerable. More typically, a stressful situation or setting can exaggerate a normal level of need, amplifying our desires and overwhelming our usual self-discipline. Two of the most common and dangerous hungers are the desire for control and the desire for importance.

Everyone wants to have some measure of control over his or her life. Yet some people’s need for control is disproportionately high. They might have grown up in a household that was either tightly structured or unusually chaotic; in either case, the situation drove them to become masters at taming chaos not only in their own lives but also in their organizations.

That need for control can be a source of vulnerability. Initially, of course, the ability to turn disorder into order may be seen as an attribute. In an organization facing turmoil, you may seem like a godsend if you are able (and desperately want) to step in and take charge. By lowering the distress to a tolerable level, you keep the kettle from boiling over.

But in your desire for order, you can mistake the means for the end. Rather than ensuring that the distress level in an organization remains high enough to mobilize progress on the issues, you focus on maintaining order as an end in itself. Forcing people to make the difficult trade-offs required by fundamental change threatens a return to the disorder you loathe. Your ability to bring the situation under control also suits the people in the organization, who naturally prefer calm to chaos. Unfortunately, this desire for control makes you vulnerable to, and an agent of, the organization’s wish to avoid working through contentious issues. While this may ensure your survival in the short term, ultimately you may find yourself accused, justifiably, of failing to deal with the tough challenges when there was still time to do so.

Most people also have some need to feel important and affirmed by others. The danger here is that you will let this affirmation give you an inflated view of yourself and your cause. A grandiose sense of self-importance often leads to self-deception. In particular, you tend to forget the creative role that doubt—which reveals parts of reality that you wouldn’t otherwise see—plays in getting your organization to improve. The absence of doubt leads you to see only that which confirms your own competence, which will virtually guarantee disastrous missteps.

Another harmful side effect of an inflated sense of self-importance is that you will encourage people in the organization to become dependent on you. The higher the level of distress, the greater their hopes and expectations that you will provide deliverance. This relieves them of any responsibility for moving the organization forward. But their dependence can be detrimental not only to the group but to you personally. Dependence can quickly turn to contempt as your constituents discover your human shortcomings.

Two well-known stories from the computer industry illustrate the perils of dependency—and how to avoid them. Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, built the company into a 120,000-person operation that, at its peak, was the chief rival of IBM. A generous man, he treated his employees extraordinarily well and experimented with personnel policies designed to increase the creativity, teamwork, and satisfaction of his workforce. This, in tandem with the company’s success over the years, led the company’s top management to turn to him as the sole decision maker on all key issues. His decision to shun the personal computer market because of his belief that few people would ever want to own a PC, which seemed reasonable at the time, is generally viewed as the beginning of the end for the company. But that isn’t the point; everyone in business makes bad decisions. The point is, Olsen had fostered such an atmosphere of dependence that his decisions were rarely challenged by colleagues—at least not until it was too late.

Contrast that decision with Bill Gates’s decision some years later to keep Microsoft out of the Internet business. It didn’t take long for him to reverse his stand and launch a corporate overhaul that had Microsoft’s delivery of Internet services as its centerpiece. After watching the rapidly changing computer industry and listening carefully to colleagues, Gates changed his mind with no permanent damage to his sense of pride and an enhanced reputation due to his nimble change of course.

Anchor yourself.

To survive the turbulent seas of a change initiative, you need to find ways to steady and stabilize yourself. First, you must establish a safe harbor where each day you can reflect on the previous day’s journey, repair the psychological damage you have incurred, renew your stores of emotional resources, and recalibrate your moral compass. Your haven might be a physical place, such as the kitchen table of a friend’s house, or a regular routine, such as a daily walk through the neighborhood. Whatever the sanctuary, you need to use and protect it. Unfortunately, seeking such respite is often seen as a luxury, making it one of the first things to go when life gets stressful and you become pressed for time.

To survive, you need a sanctuary where you can reflect on the previous day’s journey, renew your emotional resources, and recalibrate your moral compass.

Second, you need a confidant, someone you can talk to about what’s in your heart and on your mind without fear of being judged or betrayed. Once the undigested mess is on the table, you can begin to separate, with your confidant’s honest input, what is worthwhile from what is simply venting. The confidant, typically not a coworker, can also pump you up when you’re down and pull you back to earth when you start taking praise too seriously. But don’t confuse confidants with allies: Instead of supporting your current initiative, a confidant simply supports you. A common mistake is to seek a confidant among trusted allies, whose personal loyalty may evaporate when a new issue more important to them than you begins to emerge and take center stage.

Perhaps most important, you need to distinguish between your personal self, which can serve as an anchor in stormy weather, and your professional role, which never will. It is easy to mix up the two. And other people only increase the confusion: Colleagues, subordinates, and even bosses often act as if the role you play is the real you. But that is not the case, no matter how much of yourself—your passions, your values, your talents—you genuinely and laudably pour into your professional role. Ask anyone who has experienced the rude awakening that comes when they leave a position of authority and suddenly find that their phone calls aren’t returned as quickly as they used to be.

That harsh lesson holds another important truth that is easily forgotten: When people attack someone in a position of authority, more often than not they are attacking the role, not the person. Even when attacks on you are highly personal, you need to read them primarily as reactions to how you, in your role, are affecting people’s lives. Understanding the criticism for what it is prevents it from undermining your stability and sense of self-worth. And that’s important because when you feel the sting of an attack, you are likely to become defensive and lash out at your critics, which can precipitate your downfall.

We hasten to add that criticism may contain legitimate points about how you are performing your role. For example, you may have been tactless in raising an issue with your organization, or you may have turned the heat up too quickly on a change initiative. But, at its heart, the criticism is usually about the issue, not you. Through the guise of attacking you personally, people often are simply trying to neutralize the threat they perceive in your point of view. Does anyone ever attack you when you hand out big checks or deliver good news? People attack your personality, style, or judgment when they don’t like the message.

When you take “personal” attacks personally, you unwittingly conspire in one of the common ways you can be taken out of action—you make yourself the issue. Contrast the manner in which presidential candidates Gary Hart and Bill Clinton handled charges of philandering. Hart angrily counterattacked, criticizing the scruples of the reporters who had shadowed him. This defensive personal response kept the focus on his behavior. Clinton, on national television, essentially admitted he had strayed, acknowledging his piece of the mess. His strategic handling of the situation allowed him to return the campaign’s focus to policy issues. Though both attacks were extremely personal, only Clinton understood that they were basically attacks on positions he represented and the role he was seeking to play.

Do not underestimate the difficulty of distinguishing self from role and responding coolly to what feels like a personal attack—particularly when the criticism comes, as it will, from people you care about. But disciplining yourself to do so can provide you with an anchor that will keep you from running aground and give you the stability to remain calm, focused, and persistent in engaging people with the tough issues.

Why Lead?

We will have failed if this “survival manual” for avoiding the perils of leadership causes you to become cynical or callous in your leadership effort or to shun the challenges of leadership altogether. We haven’t touched on the thrill of inspiring people to come up with creative solutions that can transform an organization for the better. We hope we have shown that the essence of leadership lies in the capacity to deliver disturbing news and raise difficult questions in a way that moves people to take up the message rather than kill the messenger. But we haven’t talked about the reasons that someone might want to take these risks.

Of course, many people who strive for high-authority positions are attracted to power. But in the end, that isn’t enough to make the high stakes of the game worthwhile. We would argue that, when they look deep within themselves, people grapple with the challenges of leadership in order to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

When corporate presidents and vice presidents reach their late fifties, they often look back on careers devoted to winning in the marketplace. They may have succeeded remarkably, yet some people have difficulty making sense of their lives in light of what they have given up. For too many, their accomplishments seem empty. They question whether they should have been more aggressive in questioning corporate purposes or creating more ambitious visions for their companies.

Our underlying assumption in this article is that you can lead and stay alive—not just register a pulse, but really be alive. But the classic protective devices of a person in authority tend to insulate them from those qualities that foster an acute experience of living. Cynicism, often dressed up as realism, undermines creativity and daring. Arrogance, often posing as authoritative knowledge, snuffs out curiosity and the eagerness to question. Callousness, sometimes portrayed as the thick skin of experience, shuts out compassion for others.

The hard truth is that it is not possible to know the rewards and joys of leadership without experiencing the pain as well. But staying in the game and bearing that pain is worth it, not only for the positive changes you can make in the lives of others but also for the meaning it gives your own.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2002 issue of Harvard Business Review.
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, typical survival game pattern Archives

Which game design tropes immediately come to mind when you think of survival games? Huge player numbers? A massive game world? Weapon drops raining from the skies? Zombie hordes? Permadeath? Dinosaurs? The survival MMO genre is packed with interesting mechanics like these.

So let’s crack open a supply crate and pick five of the most interesting survival game design mechanics.

1 – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a concept game designers have borrowed from psychology. The psychologist Abraham Maslow hypothesized that human lives are organised like a pyramid built from all our needs. According to Maslow, we can only reach the pinnacle of the pyramid, usually described as “happiness” or “self-actualisation”, if we meet the requirements of each of the layers that prop it up. You can’t be spiritually fulfilled, for example, if you don’t have basic shelter or are starving and thirsty.

The concept fits neatly into all kinds of game designs. Take The Sims, for example, which uses it as a foundation for the entirety of its gameplay (along with interior design and trapping your characters inside swimming pools, of course.)

Survival games pick up Maslow’s gauntlet and ask you to duel with almost every basic aspect of your character’s well-being. Not only must you conserve hit-points but monitor hunger, thirst or even tiredness. That can be tiring for the player too. In a recent article, the writer Nathan Grayson pointed out that many survival games veer into “tedium” when asking players to account for their characters’ basic needs.

It’s true that if implemented poorly, dealing with multiple health bars isn’t a simulation of survival but a plate spinning exercise that interferes with otherwise engaging gameplay. But get it right and you have a uniquely-compelling game. The best survival games are the ones that get under your skin, where dealing with the many sides of your character is so engaging that it leads to emergent gameplay and emotional attachment.

Don’t Starve by Klei Entertainment does this through a mechanic of shifting seasons over the year. These force you to alter the character’s diet, introduces a freezing mechanic requiring the player to keep warm, and largely changes the available resources and creature types.

Alternatively, Hinterland Studio’s The Long Dark simulates a real-world apocalypse by having very limited resources. Players must attempt to survive in an isolated, frozen corner of our planet, surrounded by wolves and abandoned by humanity. Good design makes your choices seem important, rather than like topping up metaphorical gas meters.

2 – Complex health systems

Remember when Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater introduced survival elements to the series? Players healed spider bites, cleaned up scorpion stings, and somehow unbroke Snake’s shattered limbs. When you lost an eye, the first-person camera view even became a limited around the edge, making it more difficult to shoot. This is what we’re calling “complex health systems” – more than a simple health bar, this asks players to juggle many mechanics just to keep playing.

Survival games have innovated on this space in many ways. In The Long Dark, for example, you really need to look after yourself. Break an ankle at the wrong moment (when is there a right moment?) and you’ll freeze to death or be eaten by wolves. Don’t Starve asks you to focus on your character’s mental well-being too. As the situations the game presents you with becomes more extreme, so you will start to lose sanity and see changes in the world. Other games do without traditional UI elements like health bars, leaving it up to the player to understand from their character’s reactions when they’re in trouble – like in Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, where a character’s thought cloud becomes more jumbled when they’re panicked.

But it’s not just a case of managing status bars and making tactical choices. Survival games frequently take things to another level with the ultimate debuff – character permadeath. This can take the form of a total loss of your character, progress and items, or simply a forced respawn with some progress being saved.

Why have complex health systems and permadeath? Again, it’s all about consequences. Consequences lead to drama and emergent situations that take a good game and turn it into an unforgettable game.

3 – A (living dead) ecosystem

NPCs have been a part of the game landscape since Dungeons & Dragons. Some hurt you, some help you and, as AI gets more complex, some do both. Filling a game world with palpable, interactive beings creates ecosystems and worlds that should feel alive.

Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls series has long strived for this. Kill a merchant in a city and get chased by guards, attack a wild animal and be attacked by the rest of its pack, become a vampire and be denied entry into your favourite pub before burning to death in the sunlight…

When we say ‘ecosystem’ in this context, we mean the NPC-driven side of these layered systems. We mean NPCs, including animals, that interact with each other and the world when you’re not there. It’s about emergent effects from the interaction of multiple systems, like NPC overfishing causing normally-placid river monsters to go hungry and start predating NPC pets. It’s about building a world that feels real.

DayZ, for instance, creates an interesting mix of PvE and PvP and lets you attempt to survive the inevitable zombie-apocalypse. Not only do players have to worry about the 49 other humans on the server, but their attempts to survive must be juggled against a horde of zombies. But if the zombies multiplied as they killed human NPCs, and the human NPCs bred, and grew food, using zombies as fertilisers…that would be a very simple ecosystem.

The next step for survival game worlds is to introduce true persistence using technology like Improbable’s SpatialOS. Imagine playing a game where the effects of survival are felt by everyone living there. Finite resources like trees that grow-back in real time, for example, would really rack up the tension. Picture it,as winter takes hold and players get increasingly desperate for firewood, they cut down the saplings that would have matured the following years. Though the players survive, the shortage of wood would drive up the cost of all tools, weapons and buildings, driving players to attempt to use other resources instead – bone, say, which might not bode well for prisoners.

4 – Crafting, building and inventories

If you’re going to survive in a deadly and uncertain world, where your characters have multiple needs, be sure to pack the right supplies – and we don’t just mean Kendal Mint Cake. This is a golden rule across multiple genres, from dungeon-crawlers like Blizzard’s Diablo series to picking a balanced loadout in EA’s Battlefield games. Survival games also place a heavy emphasis on equipment choices, but the ways to attain or earn items vary immensely.

Using the resources that the player has obtained from the environment and other players, players can create the items they need. You could turn the shirts of dead NPCs into torn cloth, then into bandages, for example. Or you could take honey from a hive and brew some hit-point restoring mead. In Don’t Starve, shaving a character’s beard and using it to build a meat effigy even allows him to respawn upon death…

In terms of game design, items and inventories bring up unique challenges. Inventory puzzles that take a cue from the brilliant rearrangeable briefcase system from Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 somehow make even item management fun (as our recent Twitter question seemed to prove). The ability to modify weapons is also commonplace, allowing for gameplay that involves multiple styles and approaches that increase replayability.

Ever keen to take things to a more hardcore level, some survival games like RUST by Facepunch Studios have even introduced the key mechanic of starting with absolutely nothing. RUST asks players to find the resources necessary to make more complex survival tools, weapons and buildings. Having to scavenge your own resources and build your own tech creates both a sense of achievement and of something being at stake. Of course, you could always kill other players and take the things they’ve created, which brings us onto our final point…

5 – Uncertain relationships

In any massively multiplayer game, you’re going to meet all kinds of people. Some are leaders, some are followers, some are brilliantly unpredictable. For all the problems that griefing causes, this is surely the number one attraction – the amazing things that happen when we get together in virtual worlds to cooperate and compete. That goes for players and NPCs.

Survival games often take advantage of this by offering mechanics that thrive on forging fragile alliances and deep friendships. Inviting a stranger into your clan might mean adding a valuable defender against enemy NPCs or the elements. Equally, how do you know they won’t silently murder you and your clan mates, and take all of your supplies for their own? That’s the RUST way…

It’s not all doom and gloom. SpatialOS game Worlds Adrift by Bossa Studios asks players to form a crew, scavenge resources and build the skyships that provide the main form of progress in the game. Cooperation and trust are survival – one of the more engaging ways of designing an MMO game to exhibit survival elements.

Surviving Survival

We’re aware that this list isn’t comprehensive – there are many other elements that could make a good survival game.

What this list hopefully provides is a recipe for the kinds of online massively multiplayer game that make everyone at Improbable very excited. For us, the survival MMOs that work all make use of large player numbers, persistence, interesting uses of map size and scale, and complex systems. They use these to constantly challenge the player just to survive, putting them on the way to truly memorable, emergent gaming experiences. Create mechanics that empower these and we’re confident that you’ll be onto a winner.

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typical survival game pattern Archives

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A Boston-area couple recently sent a desperate email to two dozen fellow parents, seeking “advice, sympathy---anything, really” to help with their teenager’s "Fortnite" habit. After they decided to impose a screen time limit, the angry teen declared they had “ruined not only his social life, but his very life itself.”

Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, reports recently helping a family "make an action plan for one teen who was so addicted that it was interfering with schoolwork, sleep and life goals." They took advantage of "a natural break during a family vacation this summer,” he says, and the teen was “contracted to not restart when he returns home.”

I’m no stranger to "Fortnite" binges myself. Slouched on my couch, headset on and controller in hand, I’ve spent countless late nights gunning for the No. 1 spot (a “Victory Royale!”) by myself or with friends. Admittedly, I stink at the game. But even as a 25-year-old noob, I often have trouble getting myself to turn it off.

"Fortnite: Battle Royale," a multiplayer, last-man-standing shooter, is the hottestgame of the year, expected to rake in $2 billion by the end of the year. It can be played for free on every console and screen, from Xbox to iPhone. Although rated "T for Teen" in the United States, it’s nosecret that many of the game's more than 125 million players are kids -- and that many have a hard time stopping.

Concern among parents and experts that "Fortnite" is addicting for children comes at a time of heightened focus on problematic video gaming.

Concern among parents and experts that "Fortnite" is addicting for children comes at a time of heightened focus on problematic video gaming. This summer, the World Health Organization officiallylabeled “Gaming Disorder” as a mental health condition. It describes the condition as “a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior,” defined by impaired control over an escalating video game habit, which “takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities.”

On the other hand, the WHO label has provoked skepticism among many psychologists, and some have rebuffed the claim that children are getting hooked on "Fortnite." This month, an article in Education Week even suggested the game may even be good for kids.

So what's driving your kid's "Fortnite" obsession, and is the game worth worrying about? I spoke to three experts: a gaming psychologist, a professor who studies learning in games and a pediatrician who focuses on media's impacts on child health.

Explaining 'Fortnite’s' Draw

If you're not among the 125 million "Fortnite" players, here's how the game goes: As it begins, virtual players mingle in a waiting room, showing off character costumes, called "skins," and "emotes," expressive theatrical gestures and dances that are now widely mimicked. Once 100 players have joined, the game gets into gear, and players are air-dropped onto an island, armed with nothing but a pickax.

On the ground, it’s a mad rush for supplies — shield potions, ammo, building materials and guns — scattered randomly across the expansive map. As time goes on, the island is engulfed by a storm, drawing players closer together and encouraging combat. The game’s goal is simple: be the last one alive.

In essence, every game of "Fortnite: Battle Royale" follows that same, repetitive format. But there are many aspects of battle royale games, and "Fortnite" in particular, that are uniquely appealing psychologically, says Jamie Madigan, a psychologist and author of "Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People who Play Them."

The main factor explaining "Fortnite's" success: "You can play it for free,” he says. Unlike most “AAA games” — a term for titles with massive budgets — "Fortnite" does not cost upwards of $60. Instead, the game makes its money through in-game purchases, which unlock challenges, skins and emotes.

So “there’s an emphasis on progression and customization,” says Madigan, which acts as an “intrinsically motivating reason to keep playing.” He adds that daily challenges — for example, getting a kill with a certain gun — make "Fortnite" especially habit-forming, or, as he puts it, "sticky.”

The game is also chock-full of random rewards, he says, which have been shown to be "the most effective kind for getting people to pay attention, learn behaviors, and repeat them.” Features like glowing treasure chests filled with random loot trigger an evolutionary desire to find patterns in seemingly random events, especially events that we like, he says.

“Every round of the game is just a series of rolls of the dice and pleasant surprises," Madigan says, "and that is something that games long ago learned to capitalize on in terms of our psychology.”

Madigan also points to the “Near Miss Effect,” a concept in gambling research that explains why you don’t need to win "Fortnite" to enjoy the buzz of success. As long as you get close to winning, he says, you feel excitement and satisfaction close to — or even greater than — actually winning an entire match. (This might explain why I keep playing, I suppose, even though I almost never win.)

'Fortnite': A Learning Experience?

In the Education Week article, written by a pair of educators and game design researchers, "Fortnite" is described as “a classic ‘third space’ — a place that is neither home nor school, but where kids can socialize and play beyond the watchful eyes of parents or teachers.”

Eric Klopfer, a professor at MIT and director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program, says he agrees with the article's authors that virtual social spaces like "Fortnite" can be critical for forging social connections in today’s online world.  And unlike many video games, he says, "Fortnite" isn’t just a male-oriented space: “My son's squad is him and three girls from his school.”

On occasion, the parent of two also plays "Fortnite" with his son, who turns 15 next week. The game has particular merit, he says, when it comes to teaching "21st century skills,” like collaboration and problem solving

"['Fortnite'] is not necessarily symmetric in the way that people play, particularly if people come in with either different expertise or different interests,” he says. Klopfer likes to build forts and hunker down, while his son is much better at exploring for loot and preventing his father from dying. As they strive to survive together, his son constantly has to think about how best to combine their complementary skillsets. “And that’s a really great learning environment,” he says.

The Mediatrician Weighs In

Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, has written extensively about "Fortnite" and Gaming Disorder for his blog, Ask the Mediatrician.

“I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with 'Fortnite',” he says, referring to it as “virtual 'Hunger Games'.” The game can become an issue, he says, when in the hands of "young people whose executive functions, like impulse control and self-regulation, have not fully developed."

Still, Rich shies away from calling problematic gaming an addiction, for a number of reasons. “Unlike drug use, there’s no physiological addiction here, it really is more about behavioral self-regulation,” he says. “Another reason, quite honestly, is that with the addiction model … the goal in breaking the addiction is abstinence, and these kids cannot abstain from interactive media.”

He says "the idea of limiting screen time to the two hours a day of 'quality educational screens' is really a vestige of the television era that doesn't apply today,” when kids do homework online and use tablets in school.

So when is "Fortnite" a problem? Rich says when it starts intruding on or replacing daily activities — like getting a full night’s sleep, finishing homework, staying physically active, and interacting with real-life friends. "The key for parents is to recognize when their child’s gaming, social media use, pornography use, or information-bingeing ... have resulted in impairment of their academic performance or relationships."

If you feel "Fortnite" truly is usurping your kid's life, there are resources available, says Rich. Boston Children's even has a dedicated clinic for treating those with problematic interactive media use, or PIMU. According to Rich, the team has helped adolescents and children who have self-harmed, or even threatened suicide, after having devices taken away. As to how many "Fortnite"-related incidents they have seen, he says "more than one, unfortunately."

But these cases are exceptions. Rich says gaming can certainly be a part of a "rich and diverse menu of experience" for children, as long as they have reached the mental maturity needed to regulate their video-gaming behavior. But because children mature at different chronological ages, he says relying on age ratings for guidance is a flawed method.

To determine if "Fortnite" is fine for your child, all three experts suggest the same thing: watch and play the game with your kid.

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