10 Management Lessons from Dragon Army

A few years ago, I wrote a piece called 10 management lessons from Harry Potter. As a parent of three, I regularly read children’s literature and often am impressed by the wisdom conveyed in these stories. My new favorite management guru is the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card.

You may have read Ender’s Game or seen the movie. But it’s one of Card’s companion novels that inspires this post: Ender’s Shadow. For those not familiar with the story, Earth is under threat of invasion by an alien race and is training genius-IQ kids to be commanders of a fleet to save humanity. Battle School is a study in management styles—a contrast between what motivates and what demoralizes.

Here are some take-aways:

  1. Train everyone to be brilliant. “Napoleon held on to the reigns so tightly that none of his commanders was capable of brilliant independent command,” writes Card. If you insist on making all the decisions and mapping out all the courses of action, your team will turn to you for guidance on every matter, instead of honing their own problem-solving abilities. This makes you a bottleneck.
  2. Multiply your influence by grooming others. You want a whole team of people who are adept at decision-making and planning—who can function independently when needed. You expand your influence, not by keeping tight control, but by training your team in how to evaluate and respond to a range of situations.
  3. Foster the capacity to "respond fluidly and instantly to change." Show your staff a wide variety of tools and techniques for handling situations, and invite them to innovate, too. Do role-plays and practices where you throw unexpected circumstances at them. Let them formulate the response. Instead of a team who waits around for specific instructions on each task, you want a group who can take your objectives, figure out a game plan, and execute that plan without needing to consult with you constantly.
  4. Stop barking orders and criticisms. Do you feel inspired when someone yells at you? Or corrects you in front of others? If you need to discuss a performance shortcoming, do it in private. Barbed remarks in staff meetings cause resentment and make your workplace feel unsafe. Who is likely to propose new ideas or share opinions if one possible result is public humiliation? Instead, you’ll end up with people who do what is asked and no more. Your wrath will shut down their willingness to take initiative.
  5. Take the long view. You care about quality. You care about speed. So, it’s tempting to rely on your fastest, most experienced employees to complete your mission-critical projects. But your less-experienced staff members want a chance to learn and grow, too. If you deny that, their motivation will decline. Additionally, you may burn out your top performers if you rely on them too much. Invite your least-experienced folks to take the wheel periodically so they can learn to become capable drivers. Even if this means an occasional fender bender. Be willing to embrace short-term setbacks for long-term gain.
  6. Inspire risk-taking. Results. Results. Results. If you constantly dangle numbers in front of employees, a few might take risks and experiment in hopes of improving your metrics. But most are likely to become more cautious. As Bean, one of Card’s characters, observed, “Nobody wants to rock the boat, to be the one who innovates and pays the price by dropping in the rankings.” Employees need to know that it’s O.K. to fail sometimes. Otherwise, they won’t feel comfortable taking risks.
  7. Promote based on proven results. Bean also noticed, “The best were being identified and lifted out. The seeming best…(The teachers) were getting all excited about some of the energetic, self-confident, ambitious kids, even though they weren’t actually producing excellent work.” Has this ever happened in your organization? Charismatic employees stand out, but that doesn’t mean they are the best suited for promotion.
  8. Learn from subordinates who are better than you. Just because you are a manager doesn’t mean you are more expert than your employees. Boost their motivation by asking them to teach you. Invite them to fill your knowledge gaps. Give them chances to shine at what they do best.
  9. Say yes more often. If staff members request an unusual resource and present a strong business case for it, how will they feel if you decline due to a political reason or a “we’ve always done it this way” mindset? If you say “let me see what I can do,” you win respect as a manager who goes to bat for employees.
  10. Praise good work. A manager’s praise is a powerful thing. Clients can be happy. Co-workers can provide kudos. But if a manager stays silent, some part of an employee wonders, “Am I making a difference? Are you pleased with my contribution?”

Here’s my challenge for you. If you are accustomed to reading business books, step out of your comfort zone and into Battle School. Ender’s Shadow is a quick read. You’ll see a portrait of what good management can achieve. Take notes. Business insights can come from unexpected places.

Photo: Courtesy of Tor Books

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