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Leading Teams As A Stoic (1/2)

I often ask other leaders in my podcast interviews: “What keeps you up at night?” When I ask myself this question, I cannot think of anything but “How do I keep my team together on our mission to create something bigger than ourselves?”

This question keeps me busy all the time.

I previously wrote why if you’re looking to achieve in life and business, you first need a great team. Without a team, you’ve got no product — and without a product, no business. (Re-)building a great team takes time, lots of energy, and financial backing. Naturally, I often think about the threats that can endanger the most precious thing I have built over the years: a high-performing, well-functioning, and fun team to work with.

To clarify what I mean by threat, I’m referring to any event that has the power and potential to dissolve the team.

From observing the past few years, we can see that things can destroy a team: a global pandemic, a war, company reorganization, market changes (i.e. IDFA deprecation, NFTs, Metaverse), health and personal issues, team conflicts, and more.

So, what can we do about it?

As leaders, we tend to believe that we are responsible for every action and have control over its outcomes. The reality is that we have very little control over what’s going on around us. It takes wisdom to know the difference between exactly what we have control over, and what we don’t.

In this blog post, I will share leadership tools I have used to navigate and lead my team under constant uncertainty — and what you can take away for your leadership practice.

Identify what you can change and what you cannot

Over the years, I have been reading a lot about Stoicism to elevate my leadership thinking, emotional management, and wisdom. Stoics highlight the importance of keeping a constant clarity of mind and letting go of the urge of having control.

Identify what you can change and what you cannot change. Accept the things you cannot change, and have the courage to act on the things you can change.”

When I started the process of letting go of the things I didn’t control, I had to first understand what events could affect me. I classified the events into four types, based on their source:

  • External events: Any event that happens outside of work. This includes global events like a pandemic, financial crisis, or war.
  • Organizational events: Any event that is related to the organization such as a reorganization, strategic pivot, or wave of layoff. This is the reality of any organization I have been in. There are and will always be company changes, and they will affect your team in some way.
  • Team events: Any event that happens inside the team related to how we work, which projects we work on, and who we work with. It could also be events on a personal level, including family and relationship issues, financial debt, or physical challenges.
  • My events: Any event that’s happening internally. How I feel, what I think, what I fear.

When I considered the things I didn’t control, it was mostly everything that was happening around me:

  • I don’t control the Covid regulations and how they affect my team
  • I don’t control the consumer demand and market — what players want and what competitors might do
  • I don’t control whether the CEO decides on a big strategic change, or even decides to shut down our studio
  • I don’t control if someone from my team is going through personal issues
  • Above all, I don’t control how my team members feel about everything going on

The first time I did this mental exercise, I felt helpless — I realized how little control I had over everything, especially my team.

For a while, I assumed that it was my responsibility to assure the team feels comfortable — that they were under my protection. I learned the hard way that I didn’t have the power or the responsibility to change how people feel.

The only thing I could control was myself and how I respond to the events:

  • My Perception: I am responsible for how I perceive, judge, and interpret events outside of myself. I own what is going through my mind.
  • My Actions: I am responsible for how I respond to those events, my actions, and behaviors.

Here’s how I approached building a new studio at Voodoo with this Stoic mindset:

The Black Swan event

In early 2020, the global pandemic provoked German regulations that everyone had to stay at home. Originally, I planned to build a full team onsite to promote close collaboration, trust, and creativity. Half of the team had relocated to Berlin for the job, but a few months after we were formed, we all had to work from home.

My fears and negative perception

I remembered very vividly all the worries that came to my mind: “The team is brand new (just one month old) — they will never be able to build the same trust remotely, so our foundation won’t be stable. We won’t survive the year.”

Switching to a Stoic mindset

  • I accepted what I could not control: “What can I do about it? I don’t have control over the Covid restriction. It is a bummer but compared to everyone’s safety, safety is a priority, even if it’s tougher to perform well together. We will do our best within the circumstances.”
  • I switched my perception of the situation: “We are all lucky to be in good health, have a place to live and get paid to work remotely. We get to work with amazing talents and focus on our passions. There are far worse situations.”
  • I accepted the worst-case scenario: “If our studio has to close by the end of the year, so be it. I will not compromise anyone’s safety and well-being for financial gain. I will not compromise on my values.”

Focusing on what I can control

“How to sustain a great culture and environment despite remote working?”

“How can I manage my fears and anxiety with the studio’s future so uncertain?”

I believe the best and most effective way to form a team is by experiencing the full game lifecycle, from the launch to sunset.

During our first month, we dove straight into developing games through a Game Jam: 3 small teams developing 3 games within 1 month. As a result of the Jam, we created Plantopia (a merge gardening game) — it was our first game launched and the game that ultimately formed our team.

Making games makes teams.

I also had to tackle my insecurity of building a new studio in tough conditions and with very high expectations from leadership. I was very stressed in the studio’s early days — uncertain that this team would stay together, uncertain about our studio direction as a new business at Voodoo, and uncertain if making games was important in the context of a global crisis.

I was aware that my stress levels would eventually impact both my team and my ability to lead it. I decided to get support from a coach and a therapist — it was the first time that I recognized that I needed help. As a result, these three years have been filled with tremendous personal transformation — entrepreneurially and emotionally.

The fact is there will always be uncertainty. The only thing you can influence directly is your perception and your actions.

So, what does this mean when it comes to leading your team? What exactly do you need to focus on?

> Read the second part of this article HERE.

If you enjoyed this article, give your feedback, and follow my other leadership learnings on Rise and Play and the podcast!

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