Lessons in Leadership from poker pro Annie Duke

Team Leader with Two Employees

Leadership advice and inspiration can sometimes come from the most unexpected sources. I recently came across Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, the Wall Street Journal best seller from World Champion poker player Annie Duke, and found it was packed full of insights and advice that could easily be applied to leadership positions in any industry. 

Tapping into the latest trend in self-help i.e. behavioral psychology, Thinking in Bets provides an applied framework, including practical techniques and strategies, to improve decision making – one of the core foundations of effective leadership. As one of the top female poker players of all time, and a former World Series of Poker Champion, Duke has quite literally turned decision making into a professional and profitable career. 

Lessons in Leadership from poker pro Annie Duke 1

Although poker is more commonly compared to stock markets and investments, to Duke, leadership (and life) is very much like a game of poker. There may be many variations of the discipline, but they are all “a game of incomplete information…(poker) is a game of decision making under uncertain outcomes.” 

Duke naturally draws on her considerable experience to examine effective decision making through the lens of poker, but she also draws on a wide range of sources, from academic research to TED talks and TV shows. It’s a must-read for anyone looking to develop their leadership skills, and to get you started here are 5 key takeaways. 

1. Reframe decision making 

Right from the outset, Duke wants us to reframe decision making. Decision making is comparable to making a bet; bets are essentially investments made into uncertain outcomes and need to be approached probabilistically and with an open mind. 

Since the future is uncertain, black and white thinking needs to be avoided when making decisions. Instead, decisions need to be objective – the goal is to achieve the best outcome possible, rather than being specifically good or bad. 

2. Embrace uncertainty 

As a species, we tend to resist uncertainty, and it’s a trait that’s magnified when we step into a position of leadership. We’re often encouraged to feel absolute or certain before moving forward with an action or decision, but Duke believes we’ll be much more effective and the outcomes will be more positive if we embrace uncertainty.

The best poker players, just like the best leaders, are self-aware and know that they’ll never be 100% certain when making a decision. Instead of focusing on their uncertainty, they try to figure out just “how unsure they are”, making their best guess at the probability of the different outcomes that could occur. 

3. Separate outcomes from everything that came before

Speaking of outcomes, something that will get in the way of every leader and professional poker player is the inability to separate outcomes from the decisions and processes that led up to them. A bad result is not the same as a bad decision, and the same goes for good ones too. 

All too often we end up judging the decision-making process by the quality of its outcome, but this is a rookie mistake. Sometimes a bad decision-making process, which doesn’t take into account all the analysis or consider the possible outcomes, does produce a positive result. However, if you were to repeat that process over time, it would end up generating negative outcomes more often than positive ones. 

4. Lead by engaging 

Whether you’re leading a team of 1 or 100, you’re still part of that team and you need to lead by engaging your teammates. Disagreements are a part of every workplace across the world, but by choosing to engage with those people that you disagree with rather than dismiss their concerns or ideas, you will mitigate any disruptive consequences. 

When someone presents you with an alternative perspective or idea, listen out for those things that you can agree with and state them openly. Adopt the “yes and…” approach; by saying yes to something you’re affirming a valuable opinion or idea, then choosing to say ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ shows that you are open to discussing it and want to develop it. 

5. Nurture future leaders

Finally, if you really want to take your leadership skills to the next level, identify and nurture the future leaders in your company or organization. Like Duke states, “If you want to get better at something try to teach it”. 

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