5 Leadership Lessons from Sonic the Hedgehog on His 23rd Birthday
Remarkably, today marks the 23rd year since the first release of the video game, Sonic the Hedgehog. It is amazing how fast the time has passed – it seems like only yesterday that I was learning about the wonder of “Blast Processing.” Reminiscing aside, in honor of his 23rd birthday, I want to share with you what Sonic can teach us about leadership.
5 Leadership Lessons from Sonic the Hedgehog
1. It’s Ok To Make Mistakes
Make a mistake? Grab another ring and keep going. Sonic is all about speed. But with speed comes the risk of making mistakes. Some games are very forgiving with extra lives and continues, while others are brutally difficult. The original Sonic series on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive fit somewhere in the middle. Sonic collects rings as he blasts through the various stages, and these rings serve as a layer of protection. If You get hit by an enemy, all your rings go flying everywhere. The good news is, that all you need to do is pick up one of the bouncing rings that have been dropped to regain this layer of safety.
This safety allows the player to take risks that would not otherwise be possible. You see, I can freely run full speed ahead If I know that any setback I face can be quickly recovered from. Sure there is lava or bottomless pits, but most of these are fairly placed and avoidable.
In their best selling book, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, Kouzes and Posner detail one of the key Commitments of Exemplary Leadership – to “Experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from mistakes.” Much like the mechanics of collecting rings after taking a hit in Sonic the Hedgehog, employees of organizations can take beneficial risks when they feel like their environment is safe. It is the role of a leader to create and protect this sense of safety.
2. Don’t Hold Back Once Your Mind Is Made Up
When Sonic is running through corkscrews or loops, you have to maintain speed or you fall off of the course. You have to make a choice to run in a direction and stick with it. In the same way, good leaders are decisive. What holds us back from making good decisions? Fear can, but also poor decision making habits.
In their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, brothers Chip and Dan Heath identify 4 of the reasons that we make bad choices:
- A focus that is too narrow – We spend most of our time focused on what we can see obviously and we ignore what lies just outside of our initial perception.
- Confirmation bias – once we have established a belief about something, we spend our research on facts and reports that only confirm our assumptions.
- Emotions of the moment overwhelm us – we stick with a bad choice because we like it or have an emotional connection to the idea, even if it is crummy.
- Overconfidence fools us – a little success can lead us to believe that we have all the answers (or at least most of them).
3. Have A Friend Along For Support
Tails is Sonic’s faithful sidekick, joining the series in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The truth about leadership is this: look behind you, if there is no one following you, you are not a leader. Sonic has Tails following him, literally everywhere, be it a good choice or bad one. In my previous post about Who is Your Player 2, I detailed the value and importance of having a fellow traveler to share the experience with.
It’s true that many times, leadership is lonely, but when you have dedicated followers who believe in your mission, they will stick with you through thick and thin. Just be careful, some followers (like Tails) are so faithful that they will follow you right off the edge of a cliff.
4. Sometimes, Speed Is Everything
Sonic the Hedgehog 1-3 feature timers on each of the stages, but this game is about speed so you rarely notice their existence. Amazing jumps, huge ramps, zig-zagging tunnels, and blistering speed are all handled with a sense of urgency unlike any game before. Almost every stage in the series encourages flat out, full speed ahead.
Acting with this same sense of urgency is a key to advancing in your career, as well as a strong leadership strategy that is focused on results and quick wins, which lead to a burst of momentum (let’s call it Corporate Blast Processing). Waiting around for something to happen only works in Myst. And very few jobs in this world are like Myst. Taking action over waiting for permission is what successful leaders do.
5. Leaders Go First
Even though Sonic has a band of friends who join him on his mission to, well, save the world, he takes the lead. This is more than just being faster than everyone else, he presses ahead to clear a path. When Sonic and Tails need to clear a difficult jump, they do so together. When Mario and Yoshi need to clear a difficult jump, Yoshi becomes a sacrificial springboard. As a sidekick, which would you want to follow?
In his recent work, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, Simon Sinek points out that the best leaders are willing to sacrifice “numbers” to save the people, and not the other way around. The worst of leaders are willing to sacrifice the people in their organization to keep their own bonus.
What Time Changes, And What Is Timeless
It’s amazing what can change in the span of 23 years – I never would have believed you if you told me back then that Sonic and Mario would appear on the same system, or even in the same game. The rivalry between the gaming companies was war. It was responsible for the classic marketing phrase: “Sega does what Nintendon’t.”
That’s one step away from calling Nintendo’s mom fat.
But once bitter rivals are now partners in ways never imagined. And while much has changed between Sega and Nintendo, the leadership principles discussed above are timeless.
Happy Birthday Sonic, here’s to many more.