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leadership above (and below) the line.

October 13, 2016

I have had the opportunity in recent weeks to reflect on the extent to which an individual can make a difference to an organization. It was prompted by a conversation with a friend who was sharing with me the changes they had observed in their organization since it had been placed under the leadership of a particular individual – let’s call him Dave.

The changes have been perceived almost universally as negative. Of the greatest concern was a declaration by Dave that what was required for the organisation’s success was “above the line thinking”. This was listened to by the team members as a prohibition by Dave and his leadership team against the expression of any views that might be seen as critical, pessimistic or negative. This is especially true for them when it is declared as “below the line thinking” and as such not consistent with the vision and aims of the organization. Dave communicates with the team regularly via email and reminds them of what is required if the organisation is to succeed.

Now I have nothing against using metaphors (like “above and below the line thinking” – whatever that is supposed to mean) to help people conceive of alternate futures, but silencing dissent in an organization doesn’t bode well for their long-term business sustainability. It isn’t difficult to imagine the effectiveness of, say, an audit and compliance function if you require the members of that team to only be supportive and positive in relation to the organisation’s activities.

Dave is certainly making a difference and is ‘leading’ that organization. The question is, to where? What is clear is that the beatings will continue until morale improves.

The kanji for bushido


Contrast Dave’s leadership to that of Jim – a participant in a Samurai Game I recently facilitated in Singapore.

One of Jim’s earliest responsibilities as a leader was to share his vision for his team and how he wanted them to conduct themselves in the pursuit of that vision. I can’t tell you what he said or what metaphors he used. It is not that it is secret or confidential – I just didn’t hear anything of what he said to his team nor how he said it. I did however see the lasting impact of his words.

I think when he was appointed as their leader Jim would have been pretty happy to learn that there was someone in his team who had not only previous experience with the Samurai Game, but experience as a Ninja as well – and a fairly effective Ninja at that. (All you need to know about the role of a Ninja for now is that they do not have to play by any rules. While others are bound to participate according to Bushido and embody values like respect, honour, courage, integrity and honesty (nothing there about ‘above the line’ thinking…) – the Ninja do not. The only rule for the Ninja is that there are no rules.)

Whatever Jim’s words they resonated so strongly with the members of his team that it wasn’t until some time after his Ninja had voluntarily accepted the consequences for breaking the rules and taken himself out of the game that he remembered the rules didn’t apply to him!

Think about that for a minute.

Here is a role description that says sneakiness, deception, trickery and dishonesty are core competencies for the position. Yet, Jim managed to so inspire his team that when their was a slip in their concentration honesty and integrity became their default behaviours.

Now all of that sounds pretty impressive. You can imagine Jim, hands firmly clasped on the team rudder, watching the wind, issuing instructions and reminding his crew where they are headed and how he wants them to get there.

It is even more impressive when you know that Jim had handed the organizational rudder over to someone else just a few minutes after setting out his vision. He had led by example and accepted the consequences for a lapse in concentration in his own concentration that caused him to break one of the rules of the game.

During their debrief the team said it didn’t matter that Jim was not physically present as their leader for 95% of the experience. He had made his presence felt within their organization and it was a lasting presence that continued to guide their thoughts and actions until the game concluded.

Both Jim and Dave have left a legacy.

Jim created his in just a few principled and values driven minutes and his team worked to realise that vision despite his absence and the challenges that followed.

Dave? Well he has created his legacy as well. I wonder what will happen to his organization when the day comes for him to leave?


If you would like me to come and share with you and your team the benefits that come from my work in the theatre and the experiential learning environments that I create, make me an offer via the Contact Me page.

Here is what some participants have said about their experience with me:

I didn’t know what to expect next at any time and this made for a creative and thought-provoking space.  The ‘having no control’ nature of the game whilst having to exercise a high level of control and self-awareness at all times was challenging on many levels and this would suit every member of a team […]


A week out from participating in the Samurai Game with Paul Marshall as facilitator, I am now convinced of what I had merely suspected, minutes out from completion – the Samurai Game has changed my life. Having recounted the ‘story’ of the day to a number of people close to me, from the introduction, to […]

Sara (Solicitor)

For more on the Samurai Game you should start here and here.

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After you have subscribed, send this post on to your friends. Go on. You know at least one person who should read this post and three more who could use a bit of shaking up… seriously. Do it now. You read this far so send it on! I promise they won’t judge you or think less of you if you do.


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