The CEO and the Holy Grail: What King Arthur Can Teach Us About Training Leaders

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

What do King Arthur and a modern CEO have in common? Oddly enough, a great deal. Leaving aside the obvious point that King Arthur had Merlin the court wizard, and the modern CEO has his technical wizards, the two are actually facing similar problems, although the modern CEO is somewhat less likely to be hit over the head with a sword or be eaten by fire-breathing dragons. On the other hand, King Arthur didn’t have to worry about lawsuits or crashing computers, so advantage Arthur. When you strip away the scenery, the problems, methods, and solutions aren’t that different. When you put the scenery back in, you have an opportunity to learn a great deal through the experience of being King Arthur. Not only does the story of King Arthur contain numerous lessons for CEOs, how Arthur trained his workforce has lessons for training leaders and team members today. Through appropriately designed serious games, we can learn those lessons without facing the unfortunate consequences that Arthur faced.

The first connection between King Arthur and a CEO is that both of them require a highly skilled workforce in order to accomplish their goals. King Arthur needed to recruit the top knights to sit at the Round Table. The CEO needs to recruit top people to sit around the table and develop the products and services that the company requires to be successful. How does he know what to do? How does he hone his skills?

As fans of the story will recall, even when Arthur drew the sword from the stone, he still had to fight for his kingdom. As an untested fifteen-year-old, he needed to inspire his troops to go up against some of the toughest, most famous kings in the land. The CEO needs to inspire his company with the full knowledge that the competition ranges from tiny startups to behemoths like IBM or GE. King Arthur couldn’t win through brute force or simply by fencing just a little bit better: his troops were outnumbered. He needed to employ superior battle strategies and tactics. Similarly, most companies are competing against numerous opponents, more than a few of whom have far more resources than they do. They can’t win by doing the same thing but only a little cheaper. They need to develop innovative products and services that will displace the dominance of the big players and create both markets and loyalty. Building an innovative environment doesn’t just happen. It takes training and practice.

As we all know, King Arthur’s court was not without its share of interpersonal problems and politics, Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere and Mordred’s betrayal being the most famous. Arthur himself handled these situations poorly by not confronting the various parties early and dealing with the situation when it was small and easily managed. That inaction cost Arthur his kingdom and his life. John Gutfreund, CEO of one-time investment bank Salomon Brothers, ignored the actions of a rogue trader and lost his kingdom: he was forced to resign his position at Salomon and the company was nearly destroyed. Unfortunately, it’s not easy dealing with such problems and the natural instinct for many people is to hope the problem will go away. It takes facing such problems regularly to develop the skill and confidence to recognize and deal with them early. How is that going to happen without creating a pretty unpleasant working environment?

King Arthur also had the problem of training the next generation of leaders. The knight business is a tough one. Getting onto a horse in full armor isn’t easy, and dismounting involves another knight with a spear, well, there’s going to be some workforce attrition. Even worse, during peacetime, there was the problem of making sure the knights kept their swords, and skills, sharp. King Arthur solved that problem through holding tournaments. The tournaments of the King Arthur stories were the pseudo battlegrounds in which knights honed their skills and kept themselves ready for war. The skills they practiced—horsemanship, swordplay, archery, and gymnastics—were the much in demand skills of the day. Given that the tournaments were often bloody, and people were often injured or even killed during them, one could describe them quite fairly as serious games.

Modern sports are the present day incarnation of the serious games of the past: fencing, kendo, judo, gymnastics, and pentathlon, to name but a few. Each of these sports once represented the battlefield skills of the elite warrior. Masters of these sports learn early that success comes from being fully involved and from testing their skills under pressure. In the days of King Arthur, if you weren’t fully involved, you would likely end up fully dead.

Fortunately, in today’s business environment, sword fighting is strongly discouraged and paper cuts are rarely fatal. Skill training today is very much a necessity though, just as it was for King Arthur. In the constantly changing environment of today’s competitive landscape, it’s hard to know which skills will be needed when. The serious games of today need to focus on a different set of skills from King Arthur’s time, but they involve skills that are no less critical: leadership, negotiation, team work, confronting problems, public speaking, improvisation, persuasion, decision making with incomplete information, and remaining calm under pressure. Like its predecessors, the modern serious game must fully involve participants, forcing them to solve actual problems within the engrossing and absorbing context of the game.

Just as King Arthur didn’t want his first clue to be that losing a war would be a problem, a business doesn’t want its first clue to be that people aren't prepared to meet the demands of the business in the marketplace. In corporate situations, feedback may take weeks or months. By the time it is clear something is not working, it is difficult to identify cause and effect. The modern serious game must have meaningful, in-game consequences for actions. Players need to have the experience of making decisions and living with the results within a few hours or days.

The fact is all businesses need to provide leadership to their members, motivate employees, and negotiate with individuals and organizations. The problem lies in practicing those skills in an environment that does not feel artificial. Because people learn best when they are enjoying themselves, a well-constructed serious game will provide an entertaining scenario with sufficient challenge that players cannot easily “game the game.” When people are having fun, they are engaged. Players get caught up in the game and as a result deal with the problems that come up much as they would in real life. Whether a player gives up in frustration after encountering an obstacle or comes up with an out-of-the-box solution, you can see how they will perform on the job.

Unlike King Arthur’s time, however, the consequences of failure within a serious game are never fatal. By creating a fantasy environment, for example, King Arthur’s court at Camelot, it is possible to design games that free people to practice different scenarios and explore different strategies without risking either the company or their careers. Serious gaming enables businesses to practice and hone the skills of their employees before the critical situation in which those skills are needed. Employees also have the opportunity to experiment and make mistakes in an environment in which there are no financial consequences to the business. Employees who need additional skill training can be identified before they fail on the job. Employees who demonstrate significant aptitude in unexpected skills can be further developed so that the company and the employee can fully benefit from their talents. As an extra bonus, participating in an enjoyable activity that increases competence also increases motivation and loyalty to the business.

Fortunately, serious games of this nature are not a pipe dream or wish fulfillment. Known as predictive scenarios, these games provide participants with exactly the sort of play environment in which experimentation and mistakes are safe and encouraged. In short, they create an environment that provides the necessary experiences to produce real learning. By presenting the problems in a fantastic setting, players are emotionally “given permission” to step outside their normal roles and the expectations others have for them: that freedom is critical to enabling people to explore and make mistakes.

When I ran a Pandemic Flu predictive scenario in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, many participants from DHS, Homeland Security, and other government organizations, found it difficult or impossible to separate their fictional roles from their actual roles. That lack of separation prevented many participants from engaging with the scenario because they were afraid of looking bad in front of their colleagues or superiors. I’ve observed similar results with overly simple scenarios, where participants spent the entire time debating whether or not the scenario was factually correct.

On the other hand, when I run Long Ago and Far Away, a predictive scenario my wife and I developed, a very different dynamic develops: instead of being the embattled CEO, someone is the king. Instead of ambitious vice presidents, there are devilish dukes and evil earls, wicked witches, and malevolent sorcerers. The problems of leadership, negotiation, team building, and motivation are the same, but the scenery is very different. At the end, players are debriefed and learn what actually worked and what only appeared to work: more than one person discovered that a coercive style of leadership produced short-term gains but long-term losses. Others learned that their supposedly unerring instincts about whom they could and could not trust had led them to distrust exactly the people most dedicated to helping them. Still others learned that if you can figure out how to truly empower someone, it’s absolutely amazing what they are willing to do on your behalf!

In the end, Arthur and his knights embarked on an impossible quest to find the Holy Grail. While it made a good story, and, in the hands of Monty Python, one of the funniest movies of all time, it may not have been the wisest move strategically. Arthur had mastered all the challenges set before him and needed to come up with something to push his knights to ever greater efforts. Sadly, that particular training tool did more harm than good. Fortunately, modern businesses don’t need to go chasing after a mythical grail in order to create a world-class workforce.