4 Things Mario Kart Taught Me About Leadership – By Our Director of Operations

February 28th, 2017   |  

I am like that kid – you know, the one made famous by the YouTube video that captured his absolute and uncontrollable joy after opening a Christmas present and finding a Nintendo 64?

For as long as I can remember, Nintendo and I have had a strange, loving relationship. Game consoles have come and gone, and I have evolved from that 8-year-old boy to a father of two – yet, somehow Nintendo still remains one of the greatest joys of my life. However, now, as I power on the Wii U (may it rest in peace), I take on a new sense of pride as my son cuddles up next to me, mesmerized by the bright colors and actions of those digital creations racing across the screen in front of him. I hold him close and I watch as he is transfixed and transported to a world filled with wonder and imagination, mushrooms, yarn-like pipes, and clouds. And every so often, amid his frantic and fun filled adventures, he will turn to me and ask me to join in – to be a part of this world, together. And for a Dad already so enamored with the culture of play – this is perfection.

So it hit me – and granted, the idea itself is not a novel one, but while the debate rages on over the advantages or disadvantages of video games, screen time, and the normalcy of the video game culture within families (Is this good parenting?! Yes, it is.), the fact is that video games can teach us something about life. But is it possible that all those hours stressing over those sharp turns on Rainbow Road can actually be translated into some legitimate takeaways in an often black and white, and mostly cold, business environment? Is there room for play – and leadership?

The Nintendo Effect

Despite the obvious and somewhat admitted brainwashing I have had for the company, Nintendo has always understood a core concept in its philosophy as a business – the experience had to be fun, period. Everything else falls into that. And I think in focusing on that, Nintendo has done something amazing and clever. It has made the player better not by piling on pages of instructions or spinning its wheels ensuring every graphical pixel was in place to capture the reality of life, but by creating an environment where exploration and enjoyment allow enlightenment and growth. Every piece of every game is painstakingly planned-out, ensuring the player understands that true play is rewarded with knowledge and a key skill is gained with every game over. This is a conscious design choice – and a damn near perfect symphony of ideas – detailed to a tee, yet so unobtrusive to the player that it is often overlooked.

And that is okay – Nintendo understands that joy, in the most simple of definitions, will lead to replay. And replay will lead to loyalty. And that will define their base of fans – those devoted to the brand despite the cacophony of crowds/naysayers foretelling the ‘end of Nintendo’. So, here is where we turn back to a classic game from the Nintendo library, Mario Kart, and ask if that simple formula of fun has actually taught us more about leadership since we first picked up that controller back in 1992.

Let’s Get Started

Super Mario Kart was released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1992. It was overseen by Mario’s very own mastermind and world-class “imagineer” – Shigeru Miyamoto. The series of games (of which there are 8) has reached the 100 million mark in terms of global sales. In terms of video game popularity, the series is about as ubiquitous as the Mario Brothers themselves.

Most people who have played the games can probably describe the feeling of racing a kart down a course in Mario Kart only to be hit by a red shell right before the finish line. It is a collective pain we all share, but even if you have never touched a controller or fired up a copy of Mario Kart you will probably relate to the lessons learned on Rainbow Road. That said, here’s what Mario Kart has taught me through the years about being a good leader.

1. As you get better, expect more cows in the road

Ah, Moo Moo Meadows- one of the most tranquil courses in all of Mario Kart. The sun dips down over farmland as racers zoom across the unpaved roads jockeying for first place. However, among the rolling hills and occasional mole boroughs that obstruct your path, there are cows. In the road. And sure, if you start the race in the lowest class (50 CC), those cows do nothing more than meander around the edges of the course pretty much oblivious to the haste of the karts racing by. However, as your confidence grows and you increase that difficulty class, you soon find that those once tranquil grass eating bovines have other plans for your race kart. They are no longer an ornamental distraction destined to roam the background fields in peace. Now, they march before you, unafraid, embracing their roles as full on road blocks begging you to slam your kart right into them. Don’t worry – the cows are no worse for the wear – you, however, upon impact are quickly tossed asunder left to watch the other, more careful driving compatriots, speed past you to the finish. Take heart – this is not the end. With any growth, obstacles do get more intense. Yet, as Robert Collier put it, “In every adversity there lies the seed of an equivalent advantage. In every defeat is a lesson showing you how to win the victory next time.”

2. When you take the lead, it’s your race to lose

So, Mario Kart is famous for its ever changing arsenal of weaponry that each player can get from question mark boxes that line the race track from time to time. These question mark boxes may hold temporary weapons and tools that can serve to destroy those ahead of you with a heat seeking red shell – or give you a much needed boost of speed with a gracious golden mushroom that zooms you ahead of the pack. These question mark boxes are pivotal to the success and failure of many races. However, the one thing that you will quickly notice in Mario Kart is that the further ahead you are, the less impact those surprise boxes produce. So, what gives? Why does the first place racer get next to nothing (another coin? –awesome) while the last place racer is treated with red shells and golden mushrooms? If you are winning, the game expects that you no longer need the help – it acknowledges the fact that keeping the lead is up to you. You alone must guard that place against the ever looming pack of racers throwing everything imaginable at you to take your place. Simon Sinek put it best, “Leadership is not a license to do less; it is a responsibility to do more.”

3. The hardest races come without guardrails

Everyone says they hate Rainbow Road. Well, let me rephrase that, most sane people would rather race on another track than a Rainbow Road track. Consciously choosing to race on Rainbow Road often rewards you with a chorus of boos and groans from those you’re racing against, “Why would you choose Rainbow Road? I hate this one! I always fall off!” Rainbow Road has found its way onto every iteration of Mario Kart as a standard race course – met with the standard aforementioned “affection”. And for good reason. Rainbow Road is built with one thing in mind – ultimate frustration. The road winds uncontrollably – loops without relenting and provides plenty of unguarded corners and actual holes wherein one wrong move or one hesitant turn two seconds too late, sends you careening off the course entirely. And, without fail, in your rush to get back into the race, you attempt to play catch up only to get sideswiped off the track again and again – and again. It is madness. Yet, pay close attention to those who are skilled at this game – note the way they take the corners without fear and with purpose – watch as they jump right at the exact moment you are sure they are destined to fall and you will see what Rainbow Road really is. It is a testament to dedication – devotion to a craft that goes beyond trusting that there will always be something there to catch you. You won’t succeed by brute force of will – only by careful planning, continued acceptance of failure, and eventual mastery of every secret pitfall and pain point that track offers. Let’s take a verse from Langston Hughes:

“Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry–
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.”

4. You are never out

“Final lap” – the sign flashes across the screen, you glance over at the current standings, and you know you’ve got miles to make up. You grip the controller tighter and skid into those upcoming turns and twists – seeking out in desperation the question mark box that might just have the very item that changes everything. You race over the box, and hear the roulette sound play as items shuffle in random sequence – and then, it lands on the blue shell. Without hesitation, you let it fly and release it out onto the track. Mercilessly it shoots ahead of you taking everything and everyone in its path out with its sights set on first place. And, upon finding the unfortunate soul, the blue shell strikes with such aggression, the waves of its impact are felt within a fair radius of its initial impact point – those in the general vicinity are stricken off course in the wake of the explosion. Total chaos has been unleashed upon the course – and your once far-fetched hope of success is suddenly a reality. The blue shell is an item of much contention. Some call it unfair, others find it ‘cheap’ – but, beyond the characterization of it as a ‘dumb luck’ prize – it is a prime example that a race is never really finished until you cross the finish line. We often punish ourselves by stepping off the gas when we face what seem to be unsurmountable odds, instead of pushing ourselves to a finish line open to the possibility that circumstances in our ever changing environment are not set in stone. It is best to remember, we are always one blue shell away from that surprise victory.

In the end, the words of Walt Disney, the original imagineer, speak volumes, “We keep moving forward- opening up new doors and doing new things- because we’re curious. And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

There are valuable lessons in-between the race tracks and red shells of Mario Kart – and its encouragement of competition and curiosity are traits applicable to any walk of life.

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