Leadership Lessons from Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is probably the most famous tabletop role-playing game in the world. It has influenced many celebrities, including ones from both sides of the U.S. political spectrum, like Michelle Malkin and Stephen Colbert. It has appeared in hit television series including Community, and inspired a generation of writers. You may know it as a fun game that exercises creativity, imagination, problem solving, negotiation, and tactical planning.

What is less well known, however, is that role-playing games like D&D are also great for leadership development.

If you’re already familiar with D&D, feel free to skip below to “Three Tips from the Dungeon Master.” Otherwise, read on!

Monopoly Has Only One Story to Tell: Winner Takes All

Traditional games run themselves. Monopoly, for instance, has its whole story printed on the board, in the cards, and in the rules. The Monopoly story is always the same: players buy property, pay and collect rent, get windfalls, pay fines, and eventually become rich or go bankrupt. There are no corporate scandals, transit strikes, or sinkholes swallowing Marvin Gardens. Players can’t decide that they’re tired of going around and around the same streets and hop on a train to Albuquerque. And if players cooperate with each other, it rarely lasts very long.

What Makes D&D Different?

Just like Monopoly, D&D has rules and dice, but the story isn’t baked into the game—it’s created by the players and is only limited by their creativity. The players each adopt a character who is different from all the others. Every character has a unique background and set of skills, and instead of competing, these characters collaborate to “win.” The players work together through their characters to overcome obstacles, accomplish seemingly impossible goals, and change their world.

Given the boundless choices available to the players, the game could devolve into chaos or a recreation of Lord of the Flies. One reason it doesn’t is that one player, the Dungeon Master (DM), has a different role from the others. The DM runs the game. She is the adjudicator, narrator, and instigator. Her role is to set the scene, play the parts of antagonists, allies and bystanders, create challenges for the players to overcome, inspire them to care about what is going on in the story, and encourage them to stretch their imaginations and abilities. A good DM strikes a balance between making the game difficult enough that the players have to try hard to succeed, but not so difficult that the players are constantly frustrated and decide they don’t want to play anymore.

The rules and the dice create an environment where expectations are set, but surprises still happen, creating unplanned complications and opportunities for all the players, including the DM. Ultimately the game is an extended conversation in which everyone collaborates on creating a story that nobody could have created alone, even the Dungeon Master.

The Connection with Office Culture

Have you seen the connection already? A strong workplace team has diverse members with differing backgrounds, perspectives, skills, and abilities who collaborate to achieve a common goal. The best leaders manage the agenda but allow their team freedom within it to accomplish goals the best way they can. When members of a team are challenged to stretch themselves and reach for difficult goals, they experience the value of professional development and are more likely to stay engaged.

Teams who fall into tedious routines—going around and around the same board—or who are repeatedly frustrated by being pushed too hard, become disinterested and bored. Team members who don’t see the point in showing up beyond collecting their paycheck wonder why they’re working for you and not someone else. Morale drops, productivity falls and, well, you can imagine the rest.

Three Tips from the Dungeon Master

As the chief storyteller of the game, any Dungeon Master will tell you that leading is difficult. It’s not easy to keep everyone active and engaged around the table. That said, leading an engaged team can be immensely rewarding, whether it’s at a gaming table or at a conference table. Here are three tips for building an engaged team that I’ve learned from playing and running role-playing games like D&D:

1. Create Stretch Goals

Work with your team to create goals which will require them to stretch themselves, but won’t feel impossible to accomplish. Collaborate with your team in crafting these goals, and give them opportunities to adjust the goals later as necessary. After all, “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” as any D&D player may say. Show your team’s progress on a map and make visible where you were, where you are now and where you’re going. Celebrate when you reach your goals. You’ve all earned it together.

2. Give Everyone Their Moment

A good DM knows that a key to having engaged players is making sure that each one has a chance to shine. Every character craves an opportunity to be in the spotlight and really show what they can do. In real life, not everyone likes being the center of attention, but most people enjoy opportunities to use their unique skills and be recognized, even if it’s in a quiet, private way. Take a moment to consider your whole team and see if some rebalancing of opportunities is in order.

3. Create a Compelling Story

Your people are paid to do their job. They’re not paid to care. One way to get them to care is by creating a compelling story about how their work matters. Make sure your story answers these questions: Why is the larger organization depending on this team? What will happen if the team doesn’t reach its goals? How is this team uniquely qualified to accomplish its goals? What about each person makes them necessary for the whole team’s success? And why are you excited to be leading them?

The workplace and marketplace may feel like dungeons sometimes, but if you can go home at the end of the day knowing that together you were able to conquer a dragon, then you really did win the game!

We at SoulCo would love to hear your gaming stories or anything else you’d like to share. Please drop us a line!