This is going to be quite an elaborate metaphor. It works if you stick with me. As a avid gamer, I know the name Mario is synonymous with Nintendo’s Mario. Spanning decades of games, Mario is legendary and has been the company’s mascot since the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Mario is portrayed as a princess-saving hero in fiction but if you think of Mario as a leader, his actions perfectly illustrate how some fail to motivate a team.
Here’s the general layout of the original Super Mario Bros – In a 2D world Mario runs through miscellaneous obstacles jumping on blocks, traversing gaps, and defeating enemies. These enemies come in two forms; very upset waddling mushrooms called Goombas and bipedal turtles called Koopa Troopas. Mario can jump on both enemies, squishing the Goombas or sending the Koopa Troopas back into their shell, bouncing around the level. Mario finishes a level by grabbing a flag complete with fanfare and fireworks.
2D Meets 3D
Now imagine Mario as a manager, the Goombas and Koopas a team, and the flag a target metric. Goombas represent the more out-spoken and confident teammates while Koopas are the opposite; teammates that don’t share as much yet their ideas and input just as valuable. As Mario strives towards his goal, he does everything he can to succeed but at the cost of his team. Whether by complete exclusion or stepping on them Mario commits too much to only the metric. Constantly in sprint mode he forces an exorbitant amount of energy from the team just to keep up. The cycle repeats, level after level, until the team’s morale is corroded and growth stunted. Steve Cockram and Jeremie Kubicek describe this type of leadership as a Dominator in their 100X Leader book.
For the Goombas in the world, this is deflating. Confident in their own ideas, they speak out only to deaf ears as any novel approach is “risky and and this is too important to not mess up.” After so many times of getting squashed, they give up and become contempt. They are left walking around with a permanent frown. For Koopa Troopas, Mario’s over-bearing style causes them to cower in their shells. The constant push leaves them bouncing from task to task with little or no direction. The work may be done but they aren’t looking ahead. Ones not looking ahead are prevented from coming out of their shells and growing.
Don’t be a Mario. Don’t be the hero that grabs the flags, looks behind and sees no one. Be the hero who the team stands on to reach it. You can still lead a team while being part of one. For Goombas, listening is priority. At the minimum their suggestions need to be accepted and validated. More importantly, get curious on their perspective. For Koopa Troopas they need longer to internalize. Give them space to absorb then follow-up for feedback in a smaller setting. Humans thrive on connection and as such achieving goals together is ten time more rewarding. Besides, who want to watch fireworks alone?