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What ‘Mass Effect’ Taught Me About Leadership

When I was a senior in college, I took a spectacular capstone course called “How to Be an Emperor.” In the course, we studied the successes and failures of notable (and forgotten) leaders in East and South Asian history. During that time, I was playing the first Mass Effect and I found it to be the perfect companion piece. Even when the class was over, I was still learning from my time with Mass Effect.

You see, Mass Effect is a playable treatise on leadership. It’s a meditation on the tact, collaboration, compassion, and sacrifice required to see a difficult mission through to the very end. Now, as we look back on the series after the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, check out the top three lessons Mass Effect taught me about leadership.

Delegation – Find the Right Person for the Right Job

As the first human Spectre, Commander Shepard has a lot to prove, but he can’t do it alone in Mass Effect. The folks at BioWare made their protagonist rely on the abilities of others to accomplish the goals of the game. In combat, you delegate tasks your character can’t perform to other members of the party to overcome particularly difficult foes. Unlike other role-playing games, you can’t directly assume control of the other members of your party. There’s no way to grab the digital reins on Liara or Garrus to blast a space pirate. You have to point them in the right direction, issue a command, and hope for the best. When you’re facing someone with shields, send Tali to overload them. Heavy armor? Get Wrex to blast that foe with a shotgun.

Picking the right team for the job is essential

The complexity of the system doesn’t end there. You have to understand the capabilities of your teammates outside of battle to ensure that Team Normandy is most effective. You’ll need to rely on your tech-savvy squadmates to overcome locked chests and bringing the right person along on certain missions opens up dialog options and paths forward that might not be there otherwise. Shepard teaches, in a hands-on lesson, that understanding your teammates’ strengths greatly increases your chances of success.

Delegating isn’t just about being the boss and telling someone what to do. It’s an invitation for your team members to be part of your vision. By giving someone a task, you’re saying that you trust their abilities and their judgment to get it done.

Empathy – If You Care about Your Teammates, They’ll Care about the Mission

You might assume that Mass Effect is a game primarily about shooting evil extraterrestrials and rogue robots, and for the most part, you’re right. But a good chunk of the game is about listening and understanding your fellow characters on an emotional level. Outside of combat, you must build trust with your crew to prevent them from working counter to your purposes or even leaving the team.

Wrex is the toughest nut to crack, and also arguably the best character in the series

The most notable case is Wrex. At first, the surly Krogan seems like a terrible fit for the crew. He’s brusque, violent, and a reluctant tagalong on the quest to stop Saren.  But as you talk to him, you learn that he’s a renegade of a different sort. He’s on a quest to save his species from extinction after they’ve been artificially sterilized. If you fail to connect with Wrex throughout the game, he refuses to go along with your plan and meets an early end. It is perhaps the greatest challenge of the original Mass Effect, and with good reason. It’s easy to hire someone, but it’s much more difficult to make them believe that what you’re doing is right. As George Washington once said, “winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.”

The need for empathy is even more pronounced in Mass Effect 2. Your comrades can meet a grisly end if you fail to bolster their confidence and strength throughout the game. To truly succeed, you must support them when they face personal challenges and encourage them to improve. And, most importantly, you must give of your time. Making the choices as to who will perform which tasks during the assault on the Human-Reaper hybrid in the Collector base requires an intimate knowledge of each crew member’s particular skills and an astute observation of the challenges ahead.

Vulnerability – Taking Risks Pays Off, Even When You Meet With Failure

The polestar of success is a willingness to risk and fail, and risk again. This is true even in small elements of gameplay. To get a clear shot you have to put yourself in the line of fire. Every choice you make with your squad mates, too, leaves you vulnerable to rejection or exposing yourself as what you really are: a fallible human being. The Mass Effect series shows that true leadership means setting your subordinates up for success, not standing in the way of it. That means the risk of losing their support, their respect, or even their lives, but those big risks pay big dividends when your squadmates’ growth keep pace with your own.

Mass Effect
Play your cards right, and your team will always come when called. Especially when there's a party

My professor summed up the course by saying, “‘who you are’ directly relates to ‘who you are for them.'” He pointed out that those who falter in a position of leadership are those who lord their accomplishments over others. They alienate or punish those closest to them for minor failures, and they neglect personal relationships. In contrast, a great leader encourages greatness in others. By virtue of their time with Shepard, the Normandy crew goes on to accomplish incredible feats of their own: Wrex becomes the leader of an ascendant Krogan government. Garrus becomes the Batman-esque Archangel. Liara topples and assumes the Galaxy-spanning mantle of the Shadow Broker.

Mass Effect’s paramount lesson is that a great leader is not jealous of power. That smacks of insecurity. She is instead gregarious, generous, and totally in tune with the other people in her life. A good leader doesn’t shout of herself “look on these works ye mighty and despair!” She is a spectre, standing behind the marble forms of the great beings she’s helped to carve.


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