Management lessons From Ender’s Game

July 21, 2011
 

By Cathy
I have been a fan of summer reading lists since I was assigned The Pearl by John Steinbeck in eighth grade. As I got older and really embraced my geekdom, I substituted the required reading for series of books like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. One of my favorite "series" of books is Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, although I admit I never read another one after I finished the second book, Speaker for the Dead.
As a token nerd girl, I often try to merge my extreme love of sci fi, comics and fantasy fiction into the world of business, wondering how I would fare if the existence of the human race depended upon my leadership. I always turn to Ender's Game, which can be an essential text for managers and sci-fi fans alike.
Card's plot hinges on a war of the worlds between humans and “buggers” in which a brilliant child is humanity's last hope. The themes, though, are all about management. Among them are these lessons:
1. It's lonely at the top. Suck it up.
From the moment the military identifies six-year-old Ender Wiggins as the genius for whom they have waited, he is isolated. Ender is often lonely as he rises through the ranks of child warriors. He occasionally laughs with his peers. He earns their respect. But he remains apart from them, and he finally accepts this is how it must be. He is not an average soldier, and he cannot succeed as commander if he acts as if he were.
2. Give your soldiers room to fail or excel on their own.
Ender observes soldiers' innate abilities and puts them in positions in which they should shine. Then, he lets them succeed or fail on their own merits. This builds their self-confidence and allows Ender to focus on strategy, rather than micromanaging every tactical decision.
3. Lower the stakes. (Spoiler alert.)
It's a lot easier for inexperienced but talented people to flourish when they feel there is room for failure. If they fear a misstep will bring about the end of the world, they are likely to avoid the kind of risk-taking that can lead to greatness. Ender ultimately triumphs because he believes he is playing a war game, not fighting the battle that could obliterate humankind.
4. Management by manipulation is weak management.
Ender is the younger brother of two genius siblings whose styles of managing peers, adults and society differ greatly from his own. His older brother manages by fear, identifying weakness and exploiting it. His sister manages by flattery, praising people in order to manipulate them. While both siblings attain success, they never meet the standard Ender sets to succeed and build capable support teams.
Despite the strange dreams it inspires, Ender's Game is instructive for any manager who aspires to create a successful, empowered corporate army.
Do you take your management cues from unlikely sources? Share one with us.

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