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Leadership challenges in turbulent times
Leadership challenges in turbulent times

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3.1 Leadership games

Game theorists claim that they can predict human behaviour and the outcomes of that behaviour by determining the rules of social games. They divide the games of social life into three categories – positive-sum, negative-sum and zero-sum.

Business and management writers have applied the idea of these three types of games to organisational life. The metaphor of game-playing can provide useful insight into leadership behaviours and their intended outcomes.

Box 1 Positive-sum game, zero-sum game and negative-sum game

Positive-sum game

Positive-sum leadership games achieve good outcomes for all – a win/win scenario that increases resources for all players.


  • Ben spots an opportunity to tender for a new project. He calls round his contacts to propose that they develop a joint bid.

  • Yin leads employment negotiations, determined to achieve a salary raise for workers and increased productivity for the employer.

Zero-sum game

Zero-sum leadership games ensure that one individual, group, team, or organisation wins at the expense of others – a win/lose scenario in which resources remain the same but are transferred from one party to another.


  • Sadie’s department has high ambitions. In the annual budget negotiations she argues that only her department can achieve the organisation’s targets. She leaves the negotiations with a promotion, and a higher budget settlement. Her fellow-department heads are disgruntled to lose out in the budget settlement, but acknowledge that Sadie made a reasonable case.

  • Paolo negotiates more space for his growing sales team at the expense of the training team who lose their break-out room.

Negative-sum game

Negative-sum leadership games are games of survival played out in a fiercely competitive environment where the total resource is decreasing – in this scenario even the winner only just survives; the loser is in serious trouble and may not survive at all.


  • Josef leads the contract negotiations for his small cleaning company. He is shocked to find that the overall value of the contract has reduced by 30%. He meets behind the scenes with the contract holder and convinces him to award his company 70% of the total contract, even though it was previously shared 50/50 with a competitor organisation. Both have lost out, but at least Josef’s organisation has lost out slightly less than it would have done now that it has a bigger share of the contract.

These different kinds of games emerge in leadership behaviours, but also through the ways that people talk about leadership. Different situations require leaders to bring forward different aspects of their leadership, engaging in different games. You will look at this more in the following activity.

The strategies of different sports – team work, cooperation, competition, individualism, passing, holding back, supporting, encouraging, tricking – provide pictures or metaphors of leadership. The next activities will help you to begin to think about different leadership strategies through the metaphors of games and sports, addressing positive, negative, and zero-sum approaches to leadership.

Described image
Figure 10 Which game are your leaders playing?

Activity 6 What kind of games are they playing this week?

Timing: Allow 15 minutes

Consider the sports in the list below and drag each to either the ‘Team sports’ or Individual sports’ column. Feel free to add sports that are not included in the text box below.

Now think of the organisation you are working for, or have worked for, or a team you are, or were, a member of. Which game or sport most resembles the leadership games played in your organisation/team?

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Table 1 Team and individual sports
Team sportsIndividual sports


Relay race















Some games involve teams, others are individualistic; some are games of strategy that take place over time, others involve a speedy race to the finishing point; some games require cooperation as well as competition.

Rowing and cycling, two sports Team GB has achieved success in recent years, illustrate well how competitive sports can be dependent on cooperation between team members, on and off the race course. A relay race also illustrates the importance of cooperation – not just in those short moments in which the baton is handed over, but in reality in the hours, weeks and months of working together to prepare for those moments. Climbing is the sport in which the individual is perhaps most evidently dependent on others, who literally provide the support to ensure that no one falls. In contrast, tennis, chess and boxing are more individualistic, with one person emerging as champion; however, even these games require teamwork behind the scenes.

You have started thinking of potential individual and team sports that take place in your organisation and you have probably started thinking of how these affect your work and your collaboration (or not) with others. You will now explore in more depth the leadership games that play in your organisation.

Activity 7 What kind of leadership games play at your organisation?

Timing: Allow 10 minutes

You will now return to the definitions of positive, negative, and zero-sum games. Are the leadership games in your organisation (mostly) positive, negative, or zero-sum games?

Select from the radio buttons below.

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Your answer to this question is likely to depend not only on the people engaged in leadership, but also on the organisational context. The situations that leaders experience will affect the skills, styles, identities or activities they use in different organisational contexts. For example, in an organisation that is struggling against the odds to survive, leadership can become seriously, even ruthlessly, competitive as individuals struggle to maintain position. The game becomes a zero-sum one when individuals conclude that they can only maintain their position at the expense of others; and a negative-sum game when everyone loses out due to the breakdown of relationships and destructive behaviours that can take hold in such an environment.

Game-playing is a useful metaphor for understanding leadership behaviour and strategies, and the kind of objectives that those strategies achieve. It also gives an insight into how people talk about leadership. But, how can leadership increase the likelihood of positive-sum or win/win outcomes for all from collaborative working? You will look at this next.