What Organizational Leaders Can Learn from Squid Game
Squid Game has swept the digital world. Read this blog to learn some management lessons organizational leaders can take from this nerve-wracking Netflix series.
Warning: spoiler alert! If you have not watched Squid Game, you can watch it on Netflix.
Recently, Squid Game is taking the world by storm. For those who have not watched it (yet do not mind a spoiler), it is a dark dystopian Korean series that follows the story of Gi-Hun (player #456), a divorcee, compulsive gambler, and indebted chauffeur, who accepted the offer to participate in a game to settle his debt—and unbeknownst to him, a dangerous game where “game over” meant death. During the game, he formed a team with Il-Nam (player #1), Sang-Woo (player #218), Ali (player #276), and Sae-Byeok (player #67), and together they navigated the deadly tournament throughout the series.
Besides the eye-catching visuals, touching performance by the actors and actresses, and the strong plot, what I like about this nail-biting series is that it contains multi-dimensional social messages and life lessons. While it is a cautionary tale about how money, whether it is too much or too little, can ruin lives, there are also some important management lessons that organizational leaders can learn from.
In the business world, organizational leaders are the players, and the market is the game master—it decides what challenges you are playing, and whoever is reactive enough and has the best strategy gets out as the champion. We have already seen the proof during the pandemic. Organizations that can quickly adapt to changes and anticipate future demands are those that survive the turmoil.
In general, there are four key aspects of an organization: design, culture and employee experience, learning and growth mindset, and leadership. To stay ahead of the game in the constantly changing world, you need to build an internal ecosystem that can sustain changes not only in the present day but also in the future.
In this blog, I will analyze Squid Game and make a side-by-side comparison with each organizational aspect and what you can do to future-proof your organization. So, get ready and grab some popcorn!
- Goals determine the outcomes
In the first challenge, Red Light, Green Light, Sang-Woo figured out that the key to conquering it is to move quickly while hiding behind the other players. While most others were still in a panic mode and got eliminated, he made it to the finish line. In real life, we face various challenges with various levels of complexity. The minute you are hit by an issue, experiencing fear and confusion at first is normal. To get through this initial shock, focus on your goals, and think of how you want to work on the challenges as well as what you need to do to achieve those goals.
- Agile structure results in efficiency
During the lights-out period when all the players annihilated each other as each player’s death meant more money added to the piggybank, Gi-Hun, Ali, Sae-Byeok, Il-Nam, and Sang-Woo formed an alliance and a night watch system, operating in pairs, instead to protect each other since they did not have any interest to participate in the mayhem. Creating a network of teams allows you to solve issues quickly and move on to tackle the next one, especially in times of crisis. Furthermore, you can also swiftly help each other in case one team member is overwhelmed.
2. Culture and Experience
- Inclusivity will help you win
During the marble game, the players were asked to form a pair. However, one player, Han Min-Nyeo (player #212) was not chosen by anyone. To the surprise of the others, she automatically went through the next challenge and was spared from experiencing the ruthless betrayal that the marble round turned out to be. In Korean culture, she is considered the kkakdugi, which is a term used in children’s games to describe the weakest link of the group that will gain a special skill, usually in the form of immunity. The concept is to teach children to be considerate and include everyone, no matter how weak or different someone seems to be so that everyone can enjoy the game and benefit from it together. At the workplace, you need to build a culture where inclusivity is taken seriously because once everyone is united and nobody is left behind, you can move in the same direction toward success. What may be perceived as a weakness by society, may bring special skills that help everyone go further together. Eventually, you will enjoy the benefits of inclusivity.
- Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork!
Throughout the series, the theme of individualism was prominent. But what caught my attention is how teamwork was actually what helped many of them to survive. One memorable example is during the tug-of-war game where Gi-Hun’s team consisted of people from diverse backgrounds, ethnicity, and age. They were not the physically strongest team, but against all odds, they won because they listened to Il-Nam’s strategy, even though he may seem to be the weakest person in the entire tournament. Moreover, the combination of Gi-Hun’s leadership and Sang-Woo’s last-minute tactic also helped seal the winning. The true key to success is overcoming differences, listening to each other, and digging deeper together.
- Purpose drives action
At a glance, it seems that the players were all money-thirsty. But their motivation was beyond money. Gi-Hun wanted to gain custody of her daughter and afford proper medication for his mother, Sae-Byeok wanted to help her mother cross the border from North Korea, Ali wanted to give a better life for his family and Sang-Woo wanted to prevent his mother’s possession to be taken away as he used it as collateral in some failed investments. A higher purpose than mere money or profit is the one that will oil an organization’s engine—its people. Therefore, it is important to know exactly what you want to achieve together as an organization.
- Shared values vs skill alignment
Squid Game also taught us that success is not only about skill alignment but also about shared principles and values. The friendships of the main characters helped all of them to go deeper into the game. Fostering a connection based on shared values can get you far and is much more sustainable than when it is based on mere skill alignment.
In the business world, organizational leaders are the players, and the market is the game master—it decides what challenges you are playing, and whoever is reactive enough and has the best strategy gets out as the champion.
3. Learning and Growth
- Gambits can be game-changing
In the tug-of-war game, Sang-Woo’s tactic was to let go of the rope for a few seconds to make the other team lose their balance. Everyone thought he was crazy as it was such a risky move until it was proven effective. Being fearless, risk-taking, and willing to learn is necessary to move forward. Especially when times are unsettled like now, making a daring but strategic move will open you up to opportunities.
- Learning from mistakes is crucial
One of the most gut-wrenching challenges, the glass bridge, demonstrated the importance of learning from mistakes. Sometimes, you only have one chance to do one thing right. You need to learn from past data and decide your next move based on both your experience and others’. Your chance of winning will gradually increase when you want to learn and actively listen to others.
- Lead with wisdom
As I mentioned before, in the tug-and-war challenge, Il-Nam gave some life-saving tips based on his childhood experience and assigned each person a role in the match. Good leaders know how to put people in the right roles and build strategies based on experience and know-how.
- Creativity is key to success
During the honeycomb challenge, where the players were given each a honeycomb candy with a shape in the middle and a needle to break the candy around the shape, Gi-Hun remembered that sugar melted when it was in contact with water. So, instead of treacherously trying to break the candy with the needle, he licked the area around the shape. Leaders need to be prepared to challenge the common norms and think outside of the box. Seeing things differently and being creative is crucial to helping you deal with uncertainty.
- Compassion matters—a lot!
Gi-Hun, the winner, was one of the only players who cared about the value of friendship and human life. He always made sure his small team of misfits stayed together and protected each other. He may not be the strongest nor the smartest, but even the very last game—his bet with Il-Nam— proved that by believing in the good of people, you can win too. What can we learn from him? You need to be kind and to believe in your people. Being a humane and empathetic leader is key in navigating the uncertain future.
Squid Game reminds us that strong players do not make great teams. What makes a team or organization great is strategic, compassionate leaders who have a clear vision and purpose, stimulate their people to learn, grow, and work in an agile manner, embed inclusivity within and outside of the organization, and can foster genuine relationships among their people. Ultimately, those are the qualities that can make an organization resilient and ready for future challenges.