POKER AND LEADERSHIP: CREATING THE BLUFF



I love poker. I enjoy the strategy, the camaraderie (yes, I am a social being), and of course winning. But I hate bluffing. First of all, I am risk averse. I would rather fold than risk losing in a bluff. The size of the stakes is irrelevant. If the odds are against me and I won’t be able to win the pot, I would rather not lose that extra quarter. Secondly, I don’t like pretending to be someone I’m not. In poker, bluffing is not technically lying, i.e., for Texas Hold Em bluffing is the main component of the game (besides a little luck). If you don’t bluff you won’t win (ergo the dark glasses and baseball caps you see on the World Series of Poker). I don’t want you to believe that I am always truthful. I often commit small white lies in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings (based on classic Japanese culture of “saving face”). But pretending to be someone I’m not, that’s a real challenge. If I am sad, my eyes tear up. If I’m happy, my eyes tear up.


Leaders today are being placed in a confounding predicament. The greatest gurus of leadership are espousing leaders to be authentic and vulnerable. During Covid-19, almost every CEO communication uses an empathetic tone, acknowledging the emotions of their employees and stakeholders. Leaders are encouraged to show compassion, first turning inward to understand their own fears and emotions, and then outward to address those of their staff. And leaders are scared. Layoffs continue each week (with more than 55 million Americans filing for unemployment since mid-March), established brands are declaring bankruptcy (Brooks Brothers and Lord & Taylor being the latest), and despite a rebound in the stock market, there is huge uncertainty with an upcoming election and surges in new Covid-19 cases.


And yet, in this crisis, leaders need to be strong and confident. A customer sensing that their supplier is on shaky ground, will look elsewhere. If an employee hears a quiver in a Leader’s voice, they will start feeling it themselves. This event called “emotional contagion” is the effect of mirror neurons in our brain that are activated when they observe someone else’s behavior/emotion (see study). While Leaders can hide their fear behind their N95 masks (like a poker player behind sunglasses) , there are still too many tells – what they are saying, how they are saying it, what their eyes communicate, etc.


Stakeholders are looking for optimism, foresight and direction. That despite the uncertainty, you can be trusted to lead the way. Portraying optimism and positive thinking will help inspire (and thereby motivate) your employees. People have compared leadership during the pandemic to a general in war. Under stress, a great general will remain calm, demonstrate control and instill confidence in their judgment.


So, what should a Leader do? First, acknowledge and process your own emotions and fears – but outside of work. Use a trusted friend, spouse or partner, or even better hire a coach, all of whom will listen and help you explore what you are truly feeling. Keep a journal -- writing about what you are experiencing will help build self awareness and also has been shown to improve your mental well being. If you try to hide or block your emotions, you will either burnout or will explode at an inopportune time. According to Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, use the emotions as a data source, but resist using them to define who you are, saying instead “I am noticing that I am feeling stressed” or “I am noticing that I am feeling like I am a failure”.


Then find ways to anchor yourself. There are many different techniques, including breathing/ mindfulness, doing short (10 second) tactile, auditory or visual bursts of focused attention (what Shirzad Chamine calls a PQ Rep), engaging in relaxing activities (walk in nature, taking a bath, listening to music), using imagery, keeping a gratitude list, and maintaining social connections. Top poker players have daily mindfulness practices so that they can control their emotions when they are in a tournament. They learn how to create the space between the feeling and the reaction. Poker players also work with coaches who help them review upsetting hands and see what caused the player to react (or in poker terminology “put them on tilt”). They increase their self-awareness so they can anticipate and manage those emotionally driven situations, so when they are at work (sitting at the poker table) they are able to keep their poker face. So too, a leader, who is feeling stressed at work, needs to recognize the emotion or the thought and before they let it appear on their face or in their voice, acknowledge it just as a thought and create the bluff.


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