Playing Your Hand

May 07, 2021


How does evolution of the four suits, the ace, the “suicide king” of hearts, and the joker inspire us to lead teams with pure intentions?

Every summer, we got to visit my cousins’ house where we were always treated to new magic tricks. My favorite tricks were the card tricks! Misdirection and sleight of hand serve the magician well, but it is certainly not recommended for the ethical card player. As leaders, we are all dealt a hand. We don’t get to reshuffle the deck and hope for better cards. We do get to strategize during the game and improve our chances of winning.

Though the origin of playing cards is uncertain, we know the cards we use today were greatly influenced by the French in the 15th century. Not only did they develop the suits, they also “divided the four suits into two red and two black, with simplified and clearer symbols”. Since cards were traditionally made by woodcutting and engraving, these modifications “meant that playing cards could be produced with stencils, a hundred times more quickly”.1 Over time, countless designs have emerged along with countless games.

Playing a hand of cards is like running a business:

  1. Four Suits: It’s thought that the four suits represented Medieval society: hearts (or goblets) symbolized clergy; spades (or swords), military; diamonds (or coins), merchants; and clubs (or batons), peasants.2 Just like Medieval society, teams are comprised of those who care for others, thrive in conflict, or excel in negotiating. How do you play it? Seeking to be informed by different perspectives and experiences is a sound approach.
  2. Suicide” King: The King of Hearts’ sword appears to penetrate his head. Due to “rapid reproduction of decks, the integrity of the original artwork declined.” By copying deteriorating printing blocks, the king lost half of his sword.3 How do you play it? Mass production is more efficient, but quality can suffer. Clinging to excellence instead of rushing through repetitive tasks is key to accuracy and clarity.
  3. The Ace: In 1765, England began taxing the sale of playing cards. “The ace was stamped to indicate that the tax had been paid, and forging an ace was a crime punishable by death.”4 The ace became more bold in its design and importance, tempting even the most principled player to hide an ace up a sleeve. How do you play it? Leveraging a secret advantage requires good timing and patience-- and hopefully scruples.
  4. Wild Cards: Two jokers were added to the deck by the Americans in the mid-1800’s.5 Jokers are often pulled from the deck or used as wild cards. When a wild card is played, the whole game can change, forcing a shift in tactics by frustrating the best laid plans. How do you play it? Responding to surprises requires creativity, quick wit, and a poker face. The most successful leaders are willing to take a few risks, in order to win.

Playing the hand you’re dealt in a card game is like playing your hand as a leader with a diverse team and shifting tactics. Leaders must be clever and that’s different from being tricky or manipulative. Improving your chances of winning requires input from different perspectives, clinging to excellence while increasing productivity, leveraging advantages (honestly), and responding to surprises quickly with courage and creativity! It’s not sleight of hand or misdirection, it’s strategy.

Sources1Playing Card Decks: The History of Playing Cards: The Evolution of the Modern Deck2, 3, 4The Atlantic: The Lost Origins of Playing-Card Symbols5The United States Playing Card Company: A Brief History of the Joker Card.

by Michelle Sugerman • Leading Synergies, LLC • © All Rights Reserved

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