Blackjack is a simple game. The dealer deals herself one card face down and one face up while also dealing all the players two cards face up. The idea is to hit--request an additional card--as needed so you wind up with a hand that is closer to 21 than the dealer's hand. If you go over 21, the dealer wins. If the dealer goes over 21, the player wins. I was holding my own, basically just following the standard rules most people follow in blackjack and watching what cards the dealer and the other players were showing. The people next to me were losing a lot, and they seemed to be betting simply on gut feel, without any consistent behavior that I could see. My girlfriend instinctively made a few observations in my ear about possible outcomes given the card showing for the dealer.
That's when it hit me--the people next to me were playing as if the goal was to get as close as they could to 21, but they weren't paying attention to what was possible for the dealer or how other players' cards affected what was possible for themselves. Gambling is not a money-making activity under the best of circumstances, but your chances get much worse if you are playing your cards in isolation, without consideration of what you can see and learn from the other players' cards. So much of being successful at anything comes back to how well you can visualize what the world looks like from the other person's perspective. In fact, the ability to put yourself in the other person's shoes is even more important in cooperative ventures in organizations than it is in zero-sum activities like blackjack.
Every first-class leader I know looks for and cultivates people who can "think two levels up". Thinking two levels up doesn't require that you have all the knowledge and skill to perform the function of the leader two levels up--that is unrealistic. But it does require a certain kind of imagination, or at least the willingness to think about what the world looks like to the boss' boss. Who does she report to? What questions does she have to answer for her boss? What would your priorities be at that level? You can be sure that the answers to these questions have a direct bearing on tasks that will eventually reach your desk. You will be more successful at work if you cultivate the ability to think two levels up.
Organizations should not leave the development of such "strategic imagination" to chance. In other words, senior leaders need to understand how the world looks to employees throughout the work force. Leaders should communicate to help employees understand and value their role relative to the rest of the team. HR professionals should coach senior leaders to ensure clear mission statements, statements of organizational values, and other organizational "cards" encourage play that supports company goals. Such communication, used appropriately to unleash employee initiative within strategic boundaries, can improve employee satisfaction while also improving productivity. It can help employees think above the level of the daily tasks that make up their job.
In previous blogs, we've considered the tools we need to be amazing citizens. We've talked about the importance of seeking unbiased information to help us understand the reasons supporting views with which we disagree. We've talked about the role political leaders should play in encouraging participation by all of the people they represent, not just those who share their party affiliation. As we continue to observe the political drama surrounding next year's local, state and federal elections, perhaps we should consider ways to identify candidates whose behavior reflects appreciation for all the cards on the table, as opposed to those who insist on simply playing the game as if theirs are the only cards that count.
Go to Vegas. Play blackjack. It's a training activity.