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How games can improve human leadership

Using games can boost human leadership skills by promoting connection, critical thinking and curiosity, writes Lauren Fitzpatrick Shanks.

7 min read


human leadership

Folu Eludire/Unsplash

The ways in which we work and our expectations in the workplace have drastically changed over the last couple of years. Remote work is now commonplace. Hybrid schedules offer more flexibility, and technology is pushing new boundaries in how we communicate and perform our job duties. The Great Resignation of 2021, in which 41 million employees left their jobs, also changed the narrative and is still causing intense labor competition in some industries. Leaders play a fundamental role in helping employees navigate this evolving landscape and preparing them for the future of work. Yet, as Gartner notes in a new report:  

As organizations and society evolve, so do the expectations for what leaders are responsible for, making their roles increasingly complex. Today’s work environment requires leaders to be more authentic, empathetic, and adaptive. These three imperatives represent a new call for leadership: “human” leadership. Even though HR leaders try to build commitment, courage, and confidence in leaders to help them answer the call, human leaders remain few and far between. 

I witnessed this deficit well before the onset of the pandemic. It’s one of the reasons I founded KeepWOL, a platform that uses games to motivate, inspire and foster learning among teams. After experiencing some less than stellar moments while in college and the workplace — times when leaders made me feel like an outsider rather than part of a team — I recognized that leadership often lacks a quintessential human component. Instead of asking employees how they feel or what they can do to foster a more inclusive environment, many leaders prioritize other aspects of business, like key performance indicators (KPIs), sales projections or new projects, over the people doing the work.

So, what is human leadership and how do we address this fundamental workplace gap? Games are a great starting point.

Understanding human leadership and why it’s been missing

One of the best definitions of leadership I’ve come across is from New York Times bestselling author Kevin Kruse: Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal. Human leadership is a type of leadership that focuses on relating at a human level. To be a human leader, you have to deeply understand how people think and what influences their decisions. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach when working with and managing human beings. 

I agree with Gartner that human-centric leaders are authentic, empathetic and adaptive and need commitment, courage and confidence to be effective. But I would also add curiosity, connection, openness and vulnerability to this list. If businesses believe their most important assets are their employees, supporting employees’ wellbeing is critical. This includes leaders who embrace differences and maintain a positive and visible corporate culture.

Human leadership is important for several reasons. First, human leadership can help build trust and maximize connectedness among leaders and employees or followers. Trust is foundational to any team or organization. When employees feel they can trust leadership, they will have confidence in the decisions leaders make and peace of mind in knowing that these leaders will do what’s best for all involved. As a result, trust can help improve retention and boost employee happiness and morale. Human leadership also contributes to improving innovation. When employees feel heard and are comfortable with sharing creative out-of-the-box suggestions, magic happens. Human leaders promote this type of environment and create this space of comfort for employees.

While it’s true that a gap exists, it’s important to note that human leadership is already prevalent among nonprofits and social impact companies, which focus on making a difference. It’s also present within certain industries and companies including Patagonia, which connects “heart-led” leadership with the bottom line, and the Decurion Corporation in Los Angeles. Decurion is a great example of a deliberately developmental organization (DDO) and part of an emerging group of companies where leadership is intricately linked to corporate culture and supporting their employees’ development processes. 

Unfortunately, these examples are the exception, not the norm. In March 2022, Gartner surveyed 230 human resources leaders and discovered that 90% of these professionals believe that to succeed in today’s work environment, leaders must focus on the human aspects of leadership. That same month the global analyst firm also conducted a separate survey of 3,400 employees. Only 29% of respondents reported that their leader is a human leader. 

Human leadership has been largely missing from the workplace because quantifiable KPIs for this type of leadership and the impact interpersonal skills have on the bottom line are lacking. Traditional HR approaches often focus on development of “hard” or technical skills and overlook the “soft” skills or human components and emotional barriers, such as fear and uncertainty, that are holding leaders back. Additionally, vulnerability and personal connections weren’t traditionally encouraged in previous generations, but newer generations are demanding more and better.

Using games to foster and develop human leadership

There are different approaches for helping individuals develop the human components of leadership. The most common are scenario-based guides, skills and personality assessments, lectures, panels, surveys and pre-recorded videos. These might be helpful in disseminating information, but these strategies fall short when it comes to changing a leader’s behavior, mainly because they occur as one-offs and don’t focus on the ins-and-outs of everyday work life. What’s missing is real-world recurring experiences that allow humans to practice and continually develop core skills such as communication, listening, vulnerability, empathy and compassion.

Games are actually one of the most underutilized approaches, yet one of the most powerful tools for developing the next generation of leaders. Games are among our most celebrated human-centric activities. People have been playing games in some form since the earliest civilizations first arose thousands of years ago. The Royal Game of Ur, a two-person strategy game, was first played in ancient Mesopotamia during the early third millennium BC. Wei Qi, an abstract strategy board game invented in China more than 2,500 years ago, is still played today. Throughout history, games have inspired spirited competition, critical thinking and team unity.

In today’s workplace, games allow people and teams to express themselves and wonder out loud, giving employers the insights they need to retain and maximize the potential of each person and allowing each employee to play a role in realizing their own full potential while being part of the solution. Specifically, games can: 1) improve social connectedness, 2) allow participants to learn more about each other, 3) create a safe environment for sharing, 4) enable the building of trust, and 5) provide interactive, fun and insightful learning. By embracing differences and normalizing curiosity, courage and connection at work, games help put the “human” in leadership.

Developing human-centric leaders, however, requires practice and consistency, but practicing with direct reports can be uncomfortable or even intimidating. This is why passive approaches are so popular. Unfortunately these approaches don’t help with muscle memory allowing skills to become second nature. What’s great about games is that they allow you to practice and exercise new skills in an environment that’s more at ease. Games tap into the brain’s reward center and typically require quick thinking which disarms you. They provide an incentive to try harder because we all naturally want to win.   


Lauren Fitzpatrick Shanks is the founder and CEO of KeepWOL, and an award-winning engineer and tech leader, who spent fourteen years working at five Fortune 500 companies, holding various leadership roles in design, system testing, product creation, staffing, software program management, and operations. Lauren is the first Black woman to graduate from The University of Kansas’ Aerospace Engineering Department and the first Black woman to win the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) international design competition.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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