Winning on 'Warcraft' may train workplace leaders

If Deloitte L.L.P.’s John Hagel III is right, your next key executive hire may be someone who has proved his mettle by becoming a top guild leader in World of Warcraft.

Actually, the odds of that are pretty good, given that the massively multiplayer online role-playing game now has 11.5 million subscribers.

But why would you want to hire from that group?

Because, Hagel said, such games are developing new leaders.

“World of Warcraft may be the most effective leadership-development method we have,” he told those gathered in Huntsman Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus Wednesday for the 14th Wharton Leadership Conference.

That was a bold statement, coming after an earlier presentation by General Electric Co. chief learning officer Susan Peters on the industrial giant’s $1 billion annual commitment to leadership development and training.

I’ve never played World of Warcraft. But Hagel’s notion actually isn’t a new one. An International Business Machines Corp. study three years ago found a lot of parallels between the attributes of business leaders and online gamers. In fact, a survey of IBM’s own internal gaming community indicated that half said playing MMORPGs had improved their leadership skills in the real world.

And Hagel offered up a real-world example in Starbucks Corp.’s current chief information officer, Stephen Gillett, who attributes his career success, in part, to what’s learned leading a “guild,” or team, playing World of Warcraft. Gillett even calls his Starbucks blog “the Guild CIO.”

Those who are adept at playing such online games, Hagel said, possess many of the qualities companies seek in a true leader. The game is structured so that the individual cannot overcome challenges without help from others. And you don’t get very far by ordering people to do this or that.

Successful players display a high degree of personal influence in getting their teams to accomplish a task. After attaining some goal, there’s a very public review of how all team members performed, including the leader, to determine what can be done better the next time. Everything is tied to improving performance. Sound familiar?

To be sure, online gaming as a leadership-development tool was probably one of the tamest ideas tossed around by Hagel, a management consultant who is cochairman of Deloitte’s Silicon Valley-based Center for the Edge.

He talked a lot about passion in the workplace, and it had nothing to do with the attraction between consenting adults.

In American culture, we’re taught that your passion is something you pursue outside the workplace, Hagel said. You go to work to pull in a paycheck and in your off-hours do what you really want to do.
Hagel’s research finds few passionate employees in companies. In the most passionate organizations, only about 20 percent of workers could be described that way.

Passion is distinct from happiness or satisfaction, Hagel said. In fact, some of the most passionate people in an organization are those who are “deeply frustrated” because they see possibilities being squandered.

Hagel described the passionate employee this way: Someone for whom the unforeseen challenge is a problem to be solved. Passionate people have “questing dispositions” and are seeking out challenges all the time.

They are the types of employees and leaders who make change happen, create new markets, and unearth new ideas. And in Hagel’s view, America’s competitiveness is at risk without more of them.