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Leadership and Bingo

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Joseph Lubomirski, Director of Security, Infrastructure, and Operations at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Joe is a MOR program alum.  He may be reached at [email protected].

I volunteer as a bingo caller at my church. During a recent game, my mind meandered to how a good bingo caller is similar to being a good leader.

For the past two years, I have been volunteering as a bingo caller at my church, raising money for the school my children attend. For those of you who are unfamiliar with bingo, the caller is the one who operates the machine and calls out the numbers. I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into when I started. On my first day shadowing someone else who was calling, I got a glimpse of the future as he didn’t speak clearly and made a few mistakes. The sweet old ladies in the audience instantly became the most vile customers, spewing hatred and insults at him. I took over for him on the spot and have been calling bingo almost every week since that night.

If you have not attended “real” bingo before, you’re in for a treat. Our standard game has 19 different ways for someone to bingo. The people playing this game have a brain for numbers and patterns. One regular player plays 90 cards at one time. Another person plays without marking down a number on his cards and knows when he has a bingo. As the caller, my job is to announce the game, what makes a good bingo, and how much the winner will receive. I then call out a number every 24 seconds. This timing gives me 22 seconds of calm and peace to think before calling the following number. During a game a few weeks ago, my mind meandered to how being a good bingo caller is similar to being a good leader. 

Relationship Building

We all know that relationships are currency. They matter, and they are essential. It is a lot harder, but not impossible, for that sweet old lady to yell at you when you’ve talked to her, learned about her, and helped her to her car. During the session break, I try to meet one new player each week to say hello and introduce myself. They have some fascinating stories to tell. In the workplace, throwing a lit fuse over the wall is easier when you don’t know who is on the other side. Forming relationships across the organization (or bingo hall) makes future work and collaboration easier. Additionally, it lessens the chances that someone will mistreat you. It is much easier to be mean to an anonymous person. 

Your words matter

At the start of each game, I tell the players what color card they should be playing, what pattern makes a good bingo, and how much they will win. In this job, what you say is the ultimate truth. If you say “B-1” instead of “B-11”, players will mark “B-1”. If you tell them the game will pay $150 to the winner instead of $50, you’re paying $150 because that is what you announced. It is tough to walk back something that you misspoke. As leaders, our words and how we act matter. People are looking to us for how to behave. If our words express frustration, the people following us will likely pick that up as their feeling. If we meet adversity head-on and with a good attitude, our organizations will follow us with that same upbeat attitude.

Make it a great day for someone else

I usually call the first half of bingo, which amounts to 10 games lasting an hour and a half. We average about 80 people every week, meaning that for each game there are about 79 people who don’t win. I would guess about 20 of these people needed one more number. I usually hear about it. “You didn’t call my number!” People even silently mouth the number they need to me as if it will magically come up when they do. So with the call of a number, I make someone’s day and upset the majority. We experience this as leaders on a less frequent basis. Giving out positive praise can make someone’s day. Providing that praise or finally deciding an issue will put an extra spring in someone’s step.

Own up to your mistakes

The job of a bingo caller is simple on paper but challenging in practice. It is even more difficult when you make a mistake. There is an inherent pressure to make zero mistakes while calling a game. However, you’ll hear about it from those sweet old ladies when you do. The best way to handle an error is to say you made a mistake, apologize, and give them a chance to make any corrections. As leaders, we make mistakes. We can sometimes make spectacular mistakes. Being able to admit mistakes as a leader is an essential job function. Recognize that you made a mistake, apologize, deal with the fallout, learn from it, and move on.

I never thought calling out a letter and a number hundreds of times a night would help me fine-tune my leadership skills. I still get yelled at, but I also share a lot of laughs with those sweet old ladies. Just as I have improved my craft since that first night, you can improve your leadership skills through persistence, patience, and practice.

Which of the following lessons from bingo resonates most as you consider your leadership?

Last week we considered which leadership attribute resonated most from Ted Lasso.

  • 40% said optimism
  • 17% said kindness
  • 16% said admiration of others
  • 13% said humor
  • 14% said humility

Of the many ways we aspired to be like Ted Lasso, optimism resonated the most, with more than twice as many readers selecting it compared with any other attribute. Optimism, or lack thereof, is a lens we use to make sense of the world around us and why things occur. Optimism that helps us achieve results is realistic, grounded in a nuanced understanding of our context, just as Joe understands the context of bingo in this week’s reading. How might you be like Ted and Joe and find ways this week to bring more realistic optimism to your thinking?